- Created: Wednesday, 08 June 2016 15:03
- Written by Patrick Casey
The last three months have seen two elections, two pro-austerity coalitions entering government and two ‘oppositions’ formed in Ireland. Significant protest votes were recorded on both sides of the British-imposed partition, but overall the island-wide carnival of reaction rolls on.
26 Counties – the coalition that isn’t
In the elections to the Free State Dail on 26 February, notwithstanding a partial Fianna Fail recovery, the three traditional parties of government (Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Irish Labour Party) registered a combined vote share of just 56% – as opposed to 73% five years earlier on a higher turnout. Popular opposition, especially in the form of the campaign against water charges, has played a major role and the election result represents a rejection of the Leinster House/Troika austerity regime.
With no party having a majority and no immediately obvious coalition, the Free State spent ten weeks with no government. Finally, Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny was restored to the post of Taoiseach on 6 May. He proceeded to form a minority coalition government with Independents, propped up by a pact with supposed rivals Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail doublespeak has it that this does not mean they are part of a ‘Grand Coalition’, and that they have merely opened the door to the formation of a government that they will ‘facilitate’, not support.
This ‘independent opposition’ will, for the next three years, give free passage to government budgets and oppose any motions of no confidence tabled against the government, individual ministries or money bills. It has already moved in tandem with Fine Gael to block a Dail vote on the termination of water charges – the very water charges that Fianna Fail proposed in government, supported outside of government, and then vowed to abolish subject to their elusive re-election.
The fight against austerity
Growing opposition to austerity, including sustained and widespread civil disobedience, has forced immediate concessions from the incoming government. Little over a year since Irish Water began its attempted collection of payments, water charges and penalties for past non-payment have now been suspended for nine months pending a review of ‘the whole issue of Irish Water’. The promise of an increase to rent supplement and other vagaries with regard to resolving the housing crisis and alleviating poverty were well publicised features of Fianna Fail’s ‘Confidence and Supply’ arrangement with the Fine Gael-led group – a necessary follow-up to Fianna Fail’s pre-election rhetoric, but one that nevertheless provides thin cover for their farcical manoeuvring, with the party seemingly in government and opposition all at once.
Whilst Sinn Fein made electoral gains, these fell short of what they had hoped for on the back of the Easter Rising centenary and a number of years of anti-establishment posing south of the border. Sinn Fein’s part in the Stormont regime in the North of Ireland that has presided over years of austerity, and their latest capitulation on the issue of welfare ‘reform’, has tainted the party in the eyes of those seeking an electoral alternative to an increasingly discredited neo-liberalism. Meanwhile, the Anti-Austerity Alliance – People Before Profit grouping, in which the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party are the dominant forces – increased their representation in Dail Eireann to six seats.
Six Counties – house of cards
5 May saw elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. All the parties of the outgoing ‘power-sharing’ Executive suffered a decline in vote share. On 12 May the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) announced that it would not join the new Executive, followed soon after by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Thus Stormont had its first official ‘opposition’ since the Provisional IRA brought down the former Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1972. The move, a further step along the path of normalising British rule in Ireland, comes just two years after Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers called for the long-term development of a ‘more normal system at Stormont that allows for formal opposition’.
Whilst the UUP and SDLP made their way to the opposition benches, the Alliance Party declined to resume its occupancy of the Executive’s politically sensitive Justice Ministry and, in doing so, prompted yet another Stormont crisis. When in 2010 the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) ceased to block the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast, they ended the three-year impasse that followed Sinn Fein’s decision to support British policing in Ireland. The Alliance Party’s David Ford had held the Justice Minister post since then, elected by a ‘cross-community’ vote in the Assembly, requiring the support of unionists and nationalists. Alliance’s decision not to take up the ministry left Sinn Fein in limbo and loyalism smelling blood. DUP leader Arlene Foster promptly, and loudly, ruled out any possibility of a Sinn Fein occupancy, even one held jointly with the DUP. Nor would they allow the passage of an Irish Language Bill in return for Sinn Fein supporting a DUP nominee. On the 25 May Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness joined Foster in endorsing the nomination for Justice Minister of the Independent Unionist Claire Sugden, the daughter of a prison officer – another humiliating Sinn Fein concession, another insult to the nationalist working class.
A fresh start
Following Westminster intervention last November, Sinn Fein’s limited opposition to full implementation of the austerity measures demanded by imperialism came to an end with the signing of the Fresh Start Agreement. In this way Sinn Fein found to be acceptable proposals that only weeks before had been ‘totally unacceptable’ whilst part of the previous Stormont House Agreement. With consensus reached, the DUP has cleared the way for Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir to take the helm at the Department of Finance and oversee five years of brutal austerity.
But Sinn Fein was punished at the polls, most strikingly in West Belfast at the heart of its traditional nationalist working class support base. There it lost a seat to the SWP’s Gerry Carroll who topped the poll on an anti-austerity People Before Profit ticket. The Belfast West constituency is the most deprived in the north of Ireland with the worst health indicators and second highest unemployment in the statelet. 43% of children there live below the official poverty line. Overall, nationalist turnout was low. For the nationalist working class, Sinn Fein does not represent their interests; it is part of their problem.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 251 June/July 2016