|Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams with SYRIZA's Alexis Tsipras|
Writing in the February edition of republican newspaper An Phoblacht, Kearney called on the progressive and republican left to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the upheaval in Irish politics in recent years, and build a credible political alternative to challenge the dominance of conservative politics in Ireland.
“As new international political forces move towards governmental power, formal political discussion should commence in Ireland on how to forge consensus between Sinn Féin, progressive independents, the trade union movement, grassroots communities, and the non-sectarian Left,” Kearney argued.
“That process should concentrate on building durable, strategic, cross-sectoral, cross-community and political alliances North and South.”
“This is the time for serious political discussion among progressive Irish political, community and trade union activists on the ideas and strategies which will ensure the future election of a Left coalition in the South dedicated to establishing a new national Republic.”
“It is the only way forward.“
Discussions already underway
Kearney’s article in An Phoblacht is the latest in a forum of debate the paper has been hosting since July 2014 under the title “Building an Alternative”. It has featured contributions from key leaders of the union movement and the Irish left, both inside and outside Sinn Féin.
Launching the forum last year under the headline “Politics is not a spectator sport”, Sinn Féin Deputy President Mary Lou McDonald argued that “we must ferociously challenge the status quo and build progressive alliances.”
Contributions have since been made from trade union leaderships in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Mandate, SIPTU and UNITE unions, and the Communist Party of Ireland, as well as from independent MEP Nessa Childers, the Left Forum, and Sinn Féin.
Writing in the same edition as Kearney, Dr Helena Sheehan, Chair of the Left Forum, outlined her desire for a new party of the Left “converging with forces stemming from the republican tradition in an alliance with Sinn Féin that might eventually form the basis of a Left government”.
Jack O’Connor, President of Ireland’s largest union, SIPTU, echoed the call for greater collaboration during his speech to the annual commemoration of Irish trade union leader and socialist activist, James Larkin, in on January 31.
Arguing that SYRIZA’s victory in Greece signalled “the end of the nightmare of the one-sided austerity experiment” that threatens “the democratic system itself”, O’Connor declared that the Irish trade union movement was “back on the offensive”, and called for an increase in the minimum wage.
O’Connor then called on social democrats, left-wing republicans and independent socialists to develop a common political platform with the aim of winning the next election and forming Ireland’s first left-of-centre government.
People Before Profit TD, and Socialist Workers Party member, Richard Boyd Barrett also responded on February 4, saying that the "potential in Ireland for a Syriza like movement" is "very strong".
On February 1, Sunday Times reported that negotiations between Sinn Féin, trade unions, left-wing parties and independent TDs on finding a common platform have been underway for at least two months.
Irish politics in turmoil
This new initiative for left regroupment comes at a time when politics in the south of Ireland are in turmoil as years of austerity measures begin to backfire on the governing parties.
One of the countries hardest hit by the European banking crisis, the Irish economy was ruthlessly pillaged when the country was made to pay over 40 percent of the European banking debt. Ireland was then itself “bailed out”, courtesy of loans from the European Union and International Monetary Fund. These loans, however, came conditional on the imposition of austerity measures on the Irish people.
As a result, public services have been cut across the board in Ireland, the official unemployment rate has soared into double figures, and new taxes have been introduced that disproportionately target the poor, while tax loopholes for multinationals have largely been maintained.
One of the most hated new taxes is the Universal Social Charge, which was introduced by the previous Fianna Fáil government in 2011 on incomes over just 4,004 euros per year. While the threshold has been raised – first to 10,036 euros in 2012 – 2014 and now sits at 12,012 euros – the tax is still reviled as not only unjust, but also unnecessarily punitive.
Another is the Local Property Tax, which has applied to all residential properties since 2013, loading a further tax burden on already struggling families.
Despite the worsening social conditions, however, Ireland has not seen the scale of social unrest that came to characterise other parts of Europe, such as Spain or Greece. This is in part due to increased migration acting as a pressure valve, lowering the demand on jobs and services. A staggering ten percent of the population – mostly young families and skilled workers – has chosen to emigrate in search of work and a better lifestyle abroad.
Water charges open the floodgates
|Water charges protest|
The cost of water is already included in general tax revenue, so the new charge is widely seen as blatant double taxation. Also feeding popular indignation at being slugged twice for a basic human right is the fact that there are still towns in Ireland without safe drinking water.
From the outset, the new state-run corporation set-up to administer the charge – Irish Water – was beset by claims of inefficiency, cronyism and financial waste. The corporate structure of Irish Water is also viewed as a step towards the future privatisation of the utility.
A grassroots campaign quickly grew calling for a boycott of the charges – for households to neither register nor pay – and small local protests and pickets rapidly grew into a huge national movement, now largely coordinated under the Right2Water campaign.
In October, November and December hundreds of thousands marched against the water charge with one clear message: “can’t pay, won't pay”. Tens of thousands more took to the streets across Ireland on January 31 – including upwards of 30,000 in Dublin – again highlighting popular opposition to having to pay for a basic human right.
The response of the Fine Gael/ Labour Party government could not have been more out of touch with the public sentiment. Leading members of government have accused the protesters of having “a political agenda”, of being “sinister elements” and “dissident republicans” and of creating an “ISIS situation” in Ireland. At one point, Taoiseach Enda Kenny threatened higher taxes, and that water charges might be garnished from wages, before backing away from the threat.
In October, Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway even argued that “water just doesn’t fall out of the sky”, while Health Minister Leo Varadkar indicated his concern that people would protest over ‘so little’ as “3 euros a month”. Tánaiste Joan Burton may never recover her credibility after demanding to know how protesters on housing estates could afford iPhones.
In the face of the massive social disobedience, and the refusal of hundreds of thousands to register, the government was forced to set the start date back, capping the charges and offering a 100 euro "rebate" to bribe people into acquiescence.
Nonetheless, at February 2, the most recent “deadline” for registration, less than half the households in the country had been registered with Irish Water, and many of those had been registered against their will.
The waste of public funds on Irish Water came under further scrutiny on February 4, when it was revealed that up to 2 billion euros in public funds is being given to the corporation by the Irish government, including significant proportions of revenues from the Property Tax and the Road Tax.
Support growing for Sinn Féin and independents
Unsurprisingly, support for the ruling parties has slipped, with recent polls putting Fine Gael on around 24 percent support, while their partners the Labour Party have slumped to round 7 percent. The main beneficiaries of the public’s anger and disillusionment have been Sinn Féin, and a variety of independents whose politics fall across the spectrum.
In November, Sinn Féin polled as high as 26 percent, making it the most popular party on both sides of the border. In European elections last May, Sinn Féin ran on an anti-austerity program and elected an MEP for every part of Ireland, becoming the only party representing both northern and southern Ireland in the European parliament.
In that same November poll, Independents received around 30 percent, but what is perhaps most interesting is that 47 percent of those polled supported the idea of an entirely new political party, although with what kind of politics was unclear.
Some Independent TDs have begun the process of forming new political parties – mostly of the right and centre-right, but the space on the left in Irish politics remains largely unoccupied.
Left unity: not only possible, but necessary
|SYRIZA supporters celebrate their historic election win|
Attempts have been made in recent years to cohere parts of the Irish left into an effective political force, but have been largely unsuccessful.
The most recent attempt at uniting the far left – the United Left Alliance (ULA) – brought together the Socialist Party, the People Before Profit Alliance and the Workers and Unemployed Action Group, along with a number of non-aligned socialists. Formed in late 2010, the ULA initially won five seats in the Dáil in the 2011 elections, but it fell apart in less than three years.
One initiative to come out of the failure of the ULA was the Left Forum, intended to facilitate the process bringing the left together. Writing in the Irish Left Review in June last year, Helena Sheehan of the Left Forum made a call for a new party of the left in Ireland, to the left of Sinn Féin and explicitly along the lines of SYRIZA.
The broader initiative proposed by Sinn Féin, however, while not precluding a new party of the far left, has the potential to reach across a much wider layer of the Irish left, involving trade unions, the Communist Party, socialists, progressives and left republicans in a looser coalition built around a common platform.
The SYRIZA victory has presented a unique opportunity and inspiration for the left in Ireland (and elsewhere) to take the initiative back after decades of retreats – to create a new political constellation with the potential to not just fight neoliberal austerity from opposition, but to form a left government that could begin to actually reverse it.