Thursday, 10 March 2011

éirígí- Election Analysis: Voters Put Soldiers of Destiny to the Sword

The Twenty-Six County general election marked a historic shift in the politics of the state.

For 80 years, politics in the south has been dominated by Fianna Fáil, the Soldiers of Destiny, who, only twice since its foundation in 1926, received less than 40 per cent of the vote in a general election. In fact, it averaged 45 per cent of the vote in 24 previous elections, a feat likely unmatched anywhere in Europe.

February 25 marked the ignominious collapse of Fianna Fáil – its vote reduced by a massive 24 percentage points to just 17 per cent, resulting in a colossal loss of 58 seats. When Leinster House reconvened today [Wednesday] the party returned with just 20 TDs and with just one TD in the capital. Their sole Dublin TD is, ironically, former Twenty-Six County finance minister Brian Lenihan, the man who has imposed four austerity budgets since the commencement of the economic crisis in late 2008. It is a parlous state for a party once so dominant.

Fianna Fáil was founded from the ashes of the Civil War, emerging from a demoralised republican movement. The decision of the 1926 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis to reject a motion, proposed by Éamon de Valera, that abstention from Leinster House was a tactic and not a principle led to a split in the party. Following the split, de Valera gathered his supporters at Dublin’s La Scala theatre and established Fianna Fáil. The party had five key aims, including the securing of political independence of a united Ireland as a republic; the restoration of the Irish language; the establishment of a social system that “as far as possible” afforded equal opportunities to all Irish citizens and an economy based on self-sufficiency.

Fianna Fáil worked assiduously in building up its local organisation and, by 1931, had over 1,400 local cumainn across the Twenty-Six Counties. It established its own daily newspaper, the Irish Press, in 1931, funded through donations from the Irish emigrant community in the United States. It also maintained a close relationship with the IRA, with a crossover of membership in many areas and, in 1931, both organisations marched together to the grave of Wolfe Tone at Bodenstown.

Fianna Fáil polled extremely well in the 1927 general election, winning 44 seats and, just five years later, it rose to power. Its 1932 general election campaign was boosted by the active participation of thousands of IRA volunteers; the IRA leadership having suspended its orders forbidding members from working for political parties in elections. Its assent to power was not only aided by the active support of the IRA but, more particularly, by a Cumann na nGaedheal government that had been in power for a decade but which had utterly failed to improve the material conditions of the majority.

Much like the most recent general election, the 1932 election was fought against the backdrop of a global economic crisis, exacerbated domestically by the monetarist policies pursued by the Dublin government. Poverty and unemployment were rife, while the capital continued to be a city of slums. Almost 100,000 people were unemployed and an estimated 250,000 had emigrated. Despite the appalling conditions in Dublin’s slums, in the first decade of the new Free State fewer than 2,000 houses were built on average per year. Just prior to the election, Free State finance minister Ernest Blythe rushed through an emergency budget that implemented a further cut to the state pension. It was a callous act from a party far removed from the concerns and realities of working people.

In contrast to the conservatism of Cumann na nGaedheal, Fianna Fáil’s election campaign struck a distinctly radical tone. The Free State minister for industry dismissed any notion of government intervention to tackle the unemployment crisis, declaring that: “It is not any business of this Dáil to provide work, and the sooner that is realised the better. The government should not be held responsible for the provision of work in the country; it is not its business.”

De Valera’s response struck a chord with those suffering the ravages of unemployment, “if unemployment was not the government's affair, then, in God's name, whose affair was it?”

Fianna Faíl’s campaign pledge was to tackle mass unemployment and poor housing conditions. The party declared its belief in the duty of the state to provide work for its people; it promised to undertake a mass house building programme in order to clear the slums and create employment and pledged to increase social spending and reduce the salaries of high paid public servants while maintaining those of lower paid ones. The British governor general’s scandalous £10,000 salary came in for particular criticism. It was a message that resonated with voters disillusioned with a decade of austerity at the hands of Cumann na nGaedheal. Fianna Fáil won 44.5 per cent of the votes, returning with 72 seats and forming a government with the support of the Labour Party and three independent TDs.

Fianna Fáil has always considered itself as the ‘party of the nation’; one that transcended class divisions. Outlining why it had selected the name Fianna Fáil – Soldiers of Destiny, Éamon de Valera, its founding leader and most dominant historic figure, explained that the name symbolised a “banding together of the people for the national service”. The party successfully commanded the support and loyalty of workers and small farmers, yet its political programme emphasised the need for the establishment of a native capitalist class and, over its many years in power, its policies favoured the wealthy.

De Valera once infamously declared that “if I wish to know what the Irish want, I look into my own heart” and it was this ability to be all things to all people – the classic ‘catch all party’ – that ensured its almost permanent presence in government over the following 80 years. Its party leadership was as comfortable in the Galway tent consorting with the Ireland’s wealthiest property developers as it was on the stump outside the parish church preaching the message of ‘republicanism’. Indeed, a more contemporary Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern famously declared himself to be a socialist, while simultaneously enacting policies that resulted in greater inequality in the Twenty-Six Counties.

The collapse of Fianna Fáil in the general election is therefore hugely significant and its position in Dublin is particularly perilous. The 2009 local and EU elections saw the party lose its EU parliament seat in the capital to Joe Higgins and it was decimated at local government level.

Its decision to heap the burden of private banking debt upon the shoulders of working people while simultaneously imposing savage cuts and tax increases on workers resulted in outrage and anger in working class communities. It seems working people chose the ballot box to exact its revenge on Fianna Fáil and the party was given the kicking of its life. It remains to be seen whether or not it can recover from this electoral drubbing. Its new party leader Michael Martin seems keen to return the party to the ‘radical republican roots’ of its early years. However, by the time it gets around to reorganising itself, it may find that Sinn Féin, which managed to tap the deep well of anger amongst the electorate and return 14 TDs, will have captured that particular ground.

Sinn Féin’s election campaign message certainly had echoes of the earlier, more ‘radical’ roots of Fianna Fáil and its 1932 general election programme. It campaigned strongly against the EU/IMF deal and the programme of cuts imposed by the Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition. Its party president Gerry Adams used every opportunity to call for the reduction of salaries of high paid public servants while protecting those of lower paid ones and called for state programmes to create employment. All of which were positive messages to deliver and ones that would be supported by all progressives. Whether this represented a genuine shift to the left as many suggest or a return to the days when the Fianna Fáil leadership railed against high paid public servants and Cumann na nGaedheal-imposed austerity remains to be seen.

Certainly, Gerry Adams’s central message during the election campaign was for a return to what he described as ‘republican values’ and, interestingly, he used the launch of his party’s election campaign in the National Gallery to decry the era of TACA, when, in the 1960s, Fianna Fáil began tapping the golden circle for donations to fund its election machine.

The ‘golden circle’ phrase was never far from Adams’s lips during the election campaign. The reference to TACA seemed to imply that Fianna Fáil had somehow steered off course in the 1960s, when its relationship with builders and developers was cemented and Sinn Féin was keen get ‘radical republicanism’ back on track. It was an open appeal to the Fianna Fáil base to return ‘republicanism’ back to the early days of the Soldiers of Destiny. It was a message that certainly resonated and Sinn Féin’s success in securing seats in a large number of rural constituencies is testimony to that.

However, its continued support for corporate welfare in the form of the low rate of corporation tax in the Twenty-Six Counties and its commitment to implementing swingeing Tory cuts in the Six Counties indicate clear contradictions in its political programme. These are contradictions it seems content to live with and, so long as its message remains popular electorally in the south and it fails to be challenged politically in the Six Counties, that will remain the case.

The general election in the Twenty-Six Counties was fought against the backdrop of the greatest economic crisis to face the state since its establishment in 1922.

The political response to the crisis, marked by the socialisation of private banking debt and the imposition of severe austerity programmes, which have devastated living standards, exacerbated unemployment and resulted in the return of mass emigration, precipitated the demise of Fianna Fáil. The surrendering of economic sovereignty to the IMF/EU was a stark illustration of the utter failure of Fianna Fáil’s founding aim of securing the independence of Ireland. Its subservience to big business was demonstrated when, in a final act of treachery, it facilitated Shell, one of the world’s most powerful oil corporations, in raiding Ireland’s gas in the Corrib field. This treacherous act came from a party that declared at its founding rally in 1926 that it would “make the resources and wealth of Ireland subservient to the needs and welfare of the people”.

The party that rode to power on the back of an economic crisis in the 1930s has been utterly decimated as a result of its approach in government to the current economic crisis.

The challenge for the left is to transfer the anger expressed in the ballot box into action on the streets. Parties and independent candidates that rejected the IMF/EU deal and the bank bailouts had a successful election and there now exists a significant block of TDs opposed to the politics of austerity. Discussions have already commenced within the United Left Alliance, which returned five TDs, on the formation of a left party. Voters have demonstrated that they are open to more radical ideas and it is crucial that this sentiment is built upon and channelled into active political participation.

éirígí and its companion organisations in the One Per Cent Network have commenced the post-election fight-back and have called a demonstration for next Thursday, the aim of which is to highlight the fact that, despite the election, the interests of the wealthy one per cent in society continue to be protected.

It is obvious that a Fine Gael-led government will be no different to a Fianna Fáil-led one; it is committed to the four year austerity programme introduced by Fianna Fáil and backs the IMF/EU deal. The establishment war on the working class will continue relentlessly.

Fine Gael will act in the same fashion as the recently elected Tory government in Britain, with wide scale privatisation of public assets, additional income and stealth taxes on working people and further public spending cuts.

Fianna Fáil has been dumped from office; the task of destroying the rotten edifice of capitalism will require mass political action and a commitment to building the socialist alternative.

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