The results of the local and European elections suggest that Labour is in deep trouble. With Sinn Féin beginning to leave the legacy of violence in the North behind, anything, it seems, can happen...
Nothing is forever. We need to remember that.
Those who predicted that the local and European elections would see the Irish Government parties being given a bloody nose have been proven correct. In the local government elections, the major party in the current administration, Fine Gael, were plunged, in percentage terms, from the dominant position they occupied in the opinion polls less than six months ago into third place behind an aggregation of independents and Fianna Fáil. In the process they dropped 90 seats on city and county councils. It was not a good election for them.
But for the Labour Party, it was far, far worse. They were decimated, with not a single seat in the European Parliament to show for their efforts over the past three years in government. And at local council level, they were also trounced by the independents, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin alike – relegated to fifth place in the Irish political pecking order. It was a dark day for the party.
Doubtless, many Labour activists will feel that all of this is deeply unfair. And in many ways they are right. Since they went into government, they have fought hard, in hopelessly difficult circumstances, to minimise the impact of the economic collapse, in particular on members of the public service. And they have also acted as a buffer in relation to what might otherwise have been even more swinging cuts in health, education and, in particular, social welfare. Policies in all of these areas would have been far more draconian over the past three years, under a Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael-only government. But Labour have got little or no thanks for that.
Why? Labour approached the last general election campaign on a bullish platform. The slogans are still fresh in many people’s minds. It’s Labour’s Way Or Frankfurt’s Way, they declared. And so there was an expectation among those who voted for them, that, in government, they would take on the troika and the ideologues in the European Commission and the ECB.
That expectation was never realistic. The Irish people had not given Labour the mandate they sought. Even to a relatively untutored eye, it was obvious that this was the worst possible moment to consider going into government as the junior partner. The bottom line was that, unless we could negotiate a massive write-off on the bank guarantees entered into by Fianna Fáil, one way or another, money would have to be gouged out of the pockets of every single Irish citizen, over the oncoming five years, merely to have any hope of balancing the books. And the chances of a Fine Gael led government taking on the bankers of Europe to get that write-off was just about nil. Clearly, austerity policies would be imposed either way. In coalition, Labour could at best hope to act as a brake on the worst excesses of those policies.
How much better, then, would it have been for Labour not to have gone into government? At the time I argued that there was an historic opportunity for them to force Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to agree on what would have been an extraordinary pact, which might have brought the two conservative parties together, finally ending civil war politics in Ireland. But the Labour front bench was top heavy with people who were already into the last leg of their political relay. They were presented with the opportunity of one last shot at high office. The idealistic response would have been to put the future of the party first, by resisting the attractions of sitting at the cabinet table – and instead playing the long game. But they elected to go for it.
I don’t believe that this was entirely cynical. It is easy enough for any experienced politician to convince him- or herself that, given the opportunity, you can personally make a difference. But the troika ruled and the figures were so stark that Labour ministers could only affect the detail of the cuts.
For those who had voted for them, that was never going to be enough. And so they have been brutally punished. Eamon Gilmore has done the honourable thing by resigning. The question remains, however: can the party ever recover?
While Sinn Féin fell somewhat short of expectations, in winning 15.2% of the popular vote in the local elections, their steady rise confirms that they have the potential to mount a real, long-term challenge to Labour as the dominant party of the left in Ireland.
Sinn Féin have not yet left the legacy of a murderous campaign of violence in the North, during which appalling atrocities were committed by the Provisional IRA, completely behind. But while the arrest of Gerry Adams and his questioning about the murder and disappearance of Jean McConville on the run-up to the vote may have affected the party’s performance marginally, a fresh generation of candidates – like the new MEP Lynn Boylan from Dublin – is emerging from within the party, who are at a significant remove from the sickening bloodshed of the armed struggle. They don’t – and they won’t – have to answer directly for the litany of dead or for the walking wounded that survived.
In any event, a significant – and growing – proportion of the Irish electorate was not round to see just how cold-blooded so much of what was done in the name of Irish republicanism was. They weren’t there to watch the news in dread every evening or to hear the gut-churning stories of families left bereft in the aftermath.
In many ways, this is what politics is all about. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness – and other Republican leaders – made an historic decision to swap the ballot box for the armalite. That took immense courage. They have since steered the party through every crisis, and across all of the barriers that were erected to slow them down, seeing off the dissidents very effectively, and winning widespread nationalist support, to the extent that Sinn Féin is now the biggest party in Northern Ireland at local level.
The local and European election results confirm that they are now well positioned to make a similar kind of impact in the Republic. From a Labour perspective, the irony is that, in the north, alongside its power-sharing partners in the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Féin has presided over an austerity programme which is not at all dissimilar to what has been implemented by Fine Gael and Labour in the South.
Perception, it seems, is everything. And in this, Sinn Féin have a lot going for them. They have a collective vision. They don’t take big salaries. They work hard within their local communities. Deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald is a very capable performer, with a strong media presence. And come general election time, they will have a far stronger group of candidates, blooded in the local elections – and with a higher profile as a result – to put forward.
It is going to take a hell of an effort – and an unbelievable performance in government – for Labour to turn back that tide.
Nothing is forever. We need to remember that. Always...