Brendan Ogle: When I joined the Amalgamated Transport & General Workers’ Union (now Unite) over 20 years ago the Union was affiliated to the Labour Party (this remained the case until Unite rightly disaffiliated in 2013) but had a policy in place called ‘The Third Way’. This policy was passed, produced in booklet form, and pushed both within the Union and the Labour Party.
The policy, which I agreed with, was very simple. It argued that the Labour Party should have a rule forbidding entering coalition with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael because, if it did so, the result could only be that both of those parties would have to come together to form a Government. While negative in itself this, however, would then open up a political space on the left and Ireland would have a right/left political system rather than the old ‘my Grandad was a great Dev/Collins man’ baloney that passed for ‘politics’ in this state for far too long.
Of course the Labour Party rejected such a notion of principle and strategy, and instead decided to continue to offer itself up as a mudguard to both Fianna Fail (FF) and Fine Gael (FG) as and when demanded by them and the conservative media consensus. This approach reached its inevitable low point with the despised FG/Labour Government from 2011-2016, when the Labour Party made an enemy of its own voter base in order to protect Fine Gael’s. It resulted in the loss of 80% of its seats along with any respect or moral authority, and the party has been borderline irrelevant ever since. As Civil War politics ends at last, the Labour Party can ponder from their small number of seats in opposition just what might have been had they recognised this day coming and brought it about much earlier.
In 2016 Noel Dempsey, former Deputy Leader of Fianna Fail and serial Minister, let the cat out of the bag when discussing that year’s election impasse. As FF and FG continued to slide in overall popularity, Dempsey was asked whether it was time both parties finally came together as, on policy, they were practically the same anyway. Dempsey put it bluntly by admitting that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael existing separately had prevented a left developing in Ireland. And he was right, on that anyway.
“Almost a century after independence we have still never had a progressive Government”
Almost a century after independence we have still never had a progressive Government. We have never had a Government fundamentally committed to a re-distribution of wealth downwards. We have never had a Government that wasn’t led by either FF or FG. We have never had a Government that didn’t put the demands of the property and landlord class, the elites, the gombeens, over the needs of the people. We have never had a Government that put the good of the many above the greed of the few.
Obviously we have had people and parties who do not support this right wing hegemony but conservatism, both social and political, was so strong that they were always confined to the fringes. This has changed. The right to divorce has been followed by marriage equality, sexual freedom, improved gender rights and Repeal of the Eighth Amendment as people power pushed clerical and political conservatism aside on social issues. These seismic changes, however, stand in stark contract to economic policy. Ireland is a tax haven riddled with inequality, we have socialised tens of billions of Euro of private speculators’ debts, we have a health system built on ensuring private profit over public health, there is a housing emergency created and sustained to enrich landlords and vulture funds, and we have the worst workers’ and Trade Union rights in our peer group of nations within the EU. I could go on.
But we have never had an electable ‘left’. In a political landscape heretofore dominated by conservatism, it is not surprising that all we have seen to date is the development of a range of small principled but doctrinaire parties and individuals, none of which have ever gotten even 10% of the number of seats or votes necessary to come to power. It may not be surprising, but it can no longer be good enough. Some, on principle, don’t even want to come to power within a capitalist system and describe progressives who seek an alternative Government to FF and FG as mere ‘reformers’.
“The opportunity for reform has never been greater, nor the need more acute”
But the opportunity for reform has never been greater, nor the need more acute. The current programme for Government is a neoliberal charter of political expediency, a treaty entered into by those desperate for power for power’s sake. Sinn Fein (SF) will now lead an opposition as the largest party in the state. It is telling that the largest party in the state has less than half the seats necessary to form a majority Government, but SF are nevertheless entitled to highlight the hypocrisy of refusals to engage with them on entering Government by those who so loudly demanded they do exactly that in the North.
I have no doubt however that both SF, and any ambition for Ireland’s first non Fianna Fail or Fine Gael Government, would have been significantly damaged had SF entered Government with either of Ireland’s two Tory parties. SF have some of the policies and personnel to lead a very effective opposition. But if we are to finally see the Irish electorate push both of those parties out of office in the next election, the rest of the left needs to coalesce and move beyond the politics of protest and eternal opposition.
There is much to be learned from the mass protests and organisation that led to the social changes outlined above, and the anti-water charges movement too. But progressive policy principles in the areas of Health, Housing, Workers’ Rights and the Environment, including water, can now potentially form an electable political platform to put before the electorate next time round. There is a chance for various shades of opposition to now begin to work together with, for the first time, the achievable ambition of our first progressive Government.
On the weekend that the electorate finally forced Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to come together, rather than be downhearted let us look at this as a long necessary and overdue evolution. An opportunity.
“Irish politics has at last moved past the Civil War and is reaching adulthood”
Irish politics has at last moved past the Civil War and is reaching adulthood. The future is there for a better, fairer Ireland. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael coming together (and the Greens throwing themselves under a bus) creates the space to build for Ireland’s first progressive Government at last. Such a Government is a necessary ambition to drive greed and inequality out of office for once and for all.
28 June 2020