Irish people are angry about the recession, but there's little evidence that the land of green is turning red.
An economy in free-fall, mass redundancies, striking workers, protesting police, the banking system in crisis, a conservative government’s austerity plan being attacked from all sides, and a spike in home repossessions… All of a sudden Ireland seems to be a hotbed of political discontent, and all of the indicators seem to point left.
According to some, the workers are set to throw off their chains. One over-excited, right-leaning newspaper commentator expressed his fears of a future of social democracy, which he described as ‘a kind of Marxism-lite’ (1). A more sympathetic report in the liberal current affairs magazine, the Village, criticised Ireland’s minuscule far left, composed of the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Socialist Party (both clones of their UK operations), for not coming together and proposed a merger similar to that of the German De Linke party (2).
It is true that there is widespread public discontent in Ireland, and understandably, too. In February, 120,000 protesters took to the streets of Dublin to demand a change in government policy; a week later the Irish police held their own march to protest against a public sector pension levy that will result in wage cuts. Public sector unions have started organising strikes, and others are threatening to follow suit. Support for the governing Fianna Fáil party is flagging; meanwhile its erstwhile coalition party, the hard-right Progressive Democrats, has disbanded after being wiped out at the last election.
It is also true that the main beneficiaries of this change in public mood appear to be parties of the left. A recent opinion poll gave Ireland’s Labour party a 24 per cent rating – a remarkable achievement for what has always been a minority party in Irish political life. Sinn Féin, meanwhile, is ramping up the rhetoric, seeking to capitalise on frustration with bankers and developers, the pantomime villains of Ireland’s rapid decline.
However, there is little hard evidence for a rising left-wing tide. Labour and Sinn Féin are undoubtedly picking up support, but that doesn’t mean the Irish public has suddenly decided to resuscitate socialism. After all, this is the country which, during the twentieth century, failed to develop a left-vs-right battle of ideas. Instead, political life was hamstrung by the issue of Partition and the key divide in politics was over the 1922 Civil War. While the rest of the world slugged it out over the future direction of society, Ireland’s two dominant parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, offered the voters similar conservative visions; the left was marginalised for decades, though it occasionally managed to squeeze into coalition governments.
The curious apolitical divide has persisted right to today, long past its sell-by date. The IRA ceasefires of 1994 and 1997 and the Northern Ireland peace process eventually pushed Partition off the political agenda altogether (for elite opinion-formers at least), yet by the time these events took place, the entire Western world had abandoned the old, left-right politics in order to get on with ‘governance’. The ideology-free Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were perfectly placed to capitalise on this collapse of real politics and continued to vie for voters’ attention with identikit policies.
The political mainstream in Ireland may be struggling to develop a coherent narrative about the current economic crisis, but hopes of a left revival are a false dawn. Anyone expecting Labour in a future government to deliver left-wing policies is in for a surprise. In fact, the political response to Ireland’s economic turmoil has shown how useless the left-right paradigm has become. Ireland’s Labour party is a mirror image of its British counterpart: barely socialist in the first place, it has transformed itself into the party of ‘caring capitalism’, centred on the micro-management of people’s lives. One of the only interesting things about Labour is that it’s stuffed with even more ex-Stalinists than it’s UK equivalent.
At the time of the last general election in 2007, then Labour leader Pat Rabbite campaigned on the promise of delivering happiness to the electorate (3). Labour’s response to the recession has been to bash the bankers, which is fair enough, of course, but it doesn’t amount to a systematic critique of capitalism.
Strikingly, Labour is actually Ireland’s second richest party in terms of its support base (4). Wealthy urbanites might hold their noses and vote for Fine Gael from time to time, but they wouldn’t dream of supporting the uncouth bog-men and ‘cute hoors’ of Fianna Fáil, and so Labour became their natural home. Labour alumni include the late Conor Cruise O’Brien, who might charitably have been described as a gadfly, and former president Mary Robinson, who was elected on a wave of vulnerability and victimhood that presaged the coming tide.
Sinn Féin, meanwhile, is caught between a rock and a hard place: no longer a radical party, it is uncertain whether to become a fully-fledged party of the poor or to ‘green up’ and hope to get into bed with Fianna Fáil on a republican ticket (Fianna Fáil was traditionally seen as the ‘republican party’ of Ireland’s Civil War political system).
More significantly, though, while the public mood in Ireland is one of anger, it is not coherent. The recent public demonstrations are interesting, and express a powerful frustration with the way things are going, but at the moment they seem to have the character of a taxpayers’ revolt rather than a mass protest. People’s sense of isolation is as palpable as their frustration. Some of the protesters’ demands are couched in therapeutic terms. When Ireland’s police took to the streets to complain about a levy on public sector pensions, they carried placards saying ‘Share the Pain’. Militancy and progressive demonstrations are not to be expected from the police, of course; but surely we would also not expect this language of victimology? Today, Ireland’s unions more broadly are hollowed-out husks, whose main job is keeping workers in line through the social partnership agreement with the government and employers.
There is plenty of criticism of capitalists, bankers and property developers in particular, but it doesn’t represent a serious critique of the political and economic order. Even during the fat years of the Celtic Tiger era there was much handwringing over how some ill-defined essential characteristic of ‘Irishness’ was being lost in a greed-driven and individualistic ‘me-féin’ society. Newspaper columnists and commentators lined up to complain that greed was destroying the soul of the nation, while the Catholic Church, desperate to be listened to in a country that has abandoned the pews, limped in to the critique, hoping to regain some moral authority. In 2005, the writer John Waters, a rebel-conservative figure in Irish society, bemoaned how increased wealth had brought with it alcohol abuse and gangland violence, and said the nation failed ‘to look beyond the impermanence of the material world, to put values of decency and compassion before money’ (5).
This narrative has been ramped up over the years, and now old-fashioned snobbery is making a return. Seemingly, the problem in Ireland comes down to greed: imagine people wanting to own their own homes or buy a new car? How gauche!
In Ireland, as elsewhere the recession has been reduced to a morality play and politics to a pantomime. Any hopes – or fears – of a left revival are predicated more on Puritan horror at ‘over-consumption’ than on the haunting spectre of militant workers.
Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. Visit his website here.
Previously on spiked
Patrick West pondered the end of Ireland as we know it. Brendan O’Neill discussed the life and death of the conservative misanthrope Conor Cruise O’Brien and why the smoking ban matters more than the Easter uprising. Barbara Hewson wondered if a gruesome case could mark a turning point for Ireland’s abortion law. Damian Byrne wrote that Ireland’s politicians have declared war on booze. Or read more at spiked issues Ireland.
(1) You have been warned: the future is socialism, Irish Independent, 1 March 2009
(2) ‘A left divided’, Village Magazine, February.March 2009
(3) Pat Rabbitte – But, are you happy?, YouTube
(4) PDs use Reaganomics to punch above their weight, Sunday Business Post, 30 April 2006
(5) The Health of Irish Society, Studies, Winter 2005