Brian Leeson in French paper on the February general election in the South

This article gives an overview and the Éirígí perspective on the recent General Election in the 26 counties; it appeared in last week’s issue of the French left-wing publication Informations Ouvrières.  The author is cathaoirleach Éirígí.

by Brian Leeson

On February 7th voters in southern Ireland went to the polls to elect a new government for the first time since 2016.   When the exit poll was released at 10pm that night it became clear that the electorate had delivered a major blow to the two dominant centre and centre-right political parties.

When counting concluded four days later the outgoing party of government, Fine Gael, had just 20.9% of the popular vote.  Fianna Fail came in with the second largest share at 22.2%.  And in a shock result, Sinn Féin won the largest share of first-preference votes at 24.5%.

The importance of this result can only be fully appreciated when it is placed in its historical context. In the century since the foundation of the state in 1922, no party has ever secured more first preference votes than Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.

Indeed, Fianna Fail won the highest number of parliamentary seats in every general election between 1932 and 2011.  It was also in government for 61 of those 79 years.

It took the catastrophic collapse of the property market, private banking sector and the wider economy for Fine Gael to secure more seats than Fianna Fail for the first time in the 2011 general election.

The scale of Sinn Féin’s vote in the 2020 general election took all political parties, including Sinn Féin, by surprise.   The party had a very poor electoral performance just ten months ago when it lost half of its European Parliament and local government seats in the May 2019 elections.  Opinion polls throughout the remainder of 2019 suggested that Sinn Féin would also do badly in the general election.

The first indication of growth in support for Sinn Féin appeared in opinion polls taken just weeks before election day, too late for Sinn Féin to nominate additional candidates to take advantage of the late surge.  When the votes were counted it became clear that Sinn Féin would have won additional parliamentary seats in several constituencies had it run more candidates.

Interestingly these surplus Sinn Féin votes transferred strongly to other candidates of the broad Left, ensuring the election of additional Trostkyist, Social Democrat, Green Party and independents.  This voting pattern was no doubt helped by the hashtag #VoteLeft, which featured prominently on Irish social media in the days running up to the election.

At the time of writing a government has yet to be formed.  Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have ruled out going into government with Sinn Féin. Without the support of one of these parties, Sinn Féin is unable to form a minority left-leaning government.

The most likely outcome of post-election negotiations between the various parties will be another general election or a coalition government of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and a smaller party such as The Greens.

Despite this uncertainty, there are several important points that can be taken from the February 7th election.

  • For the first time in the history of the state a party other than Fianna Fail and Fine Gael has won the popular vote and would have won the highest number of seats with more candidates.  The political and psychological importance of breaking a century-long duopoly of political domination by these centre and centre-right parties can not be over-estimated.

  • Unlike Sinn Féin, neither Fianna Fail nor Fine Gael contest elections in the British-controlled Six Counties of North-East Ireland.  When Sinn Féin’s support in both states is taken together, the party dwarves every other political party in Ireland.   The growth in Sinn Féin’s support cannot be taken in isolation from Brexit and a general upsurge in support for Irish re-unification, something which the southern political establishment is terrified of.

  • Parties and independent of the Left, in the broadest sense of the word, attracted a record high 43% of the popular vote – enough for talk of a left-leaning government to move from the abstract to the possible.

  • The vote of broadly Left parties and independents was particularly strong among young voters, with an estimated 31% of all voters under 35 years of age voting for Sinn Féin alone.  These voters have suffered the most as a result of neo-liberalism and the austerity agenda that followed the economic collapse of 2008.  Huge numbers of these young citizens are directly affected by Ireland’s chronic housing crisis, the lack of secure employment, the high-cost of childcare, the underfunding of third-level education and the environmental destruction that capitalism in inflicting on the planet.

  • For the first time in Irish history a significant number of far-right candidates stood for election in 2020.  They were roundly rejected by the Irish electorate, securing less than 1% of the popular vote despite spending large amounts of money and a very noisy social media presence.

Taken together these points tell us that the Irish political landscape is in a state of intense flux.  Young voters and workers, in particular, are less bound by old family and tribal loyalties than ever before.  And they are increasingly voting along material and class lines, looking to the Left to provide solutions to the many problems that they are facing in their daily lives.

The parallel crises that now exist in housing, healthcare, childcare, pensions, taxation, the environment and elsewhere cannot be solved by the social democratic policies that are being proposed by Sinn Féin and other centre-left parties, a truth that will become clear to ever greater numbers of people in the coming years.

The general movement to the Left that occurred in the recent general election opens up the possibility of continued momentum in that direction, of the creation of a major political base anchored in meaningful political, economic and social change.

The challenge facing smaller Irish political parties, like my own Éirígí For A New Republic, is to find way to accelerate that momentum to the Left, to bring large sections of the population beyond the demand for moderate change to the point of demanding and actively fighting for maximum, structural change.

Posted on March 3, 2020, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, Anti-household and anti-water tax, éirígí, Democratic rights - general, Economy and workers' resistance, Elections, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Imperialism (generally), Irish politics today, Partition, Provos - then and now, Public events - Ireland, Public sector/cuts, Toadyism, twenty-six counties, Workers rights. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Brian Leeson in French paper on the February general election in the South.

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