By Frank Hayes

The daily reality check of deepening poverty, zero hours, minimum wages and an “unfree-market”-driven housing crisis, combined with endemic health, public service, and community care cut-backs, frame the doorstep ambush for Ireland’s election candidates.

There’s been a loss of faith in the ability of the failed, old, tried – but no longer trusted – blasé arrogance,  the lies and corruption to deliver any semblance of a viable future. People are seeking alternative strategies, hoping to remedy accumulating social crises which communities face every day.

A housing protest outside government buildings in Dublin

The Irish Republic will vote to elect its 33rd Dail on February 8th in only the second Saturday poll in a century. The first in the aftermath of World War One resulted in the withdrawal of most Irish MPs from Westminster and the creation of the revolutionary First Dail of 1919.

That event commenced the protracted break-up of what was then referred to as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The 2020 election occurs in no less volatile times.

A dead Celtic tiger

The 2008 global financial crash broke the fragile Irish economy, and the once-confident establishment believers in market forces had to introduce cruel and stringent austerity as they bailed out bankers and international investors at the expense of people’s public services. The EU coerced the Fianna Fail/Green coalition to rifle the exchequer and make Irish workers’ pay for the consequences of the crash.

Coalitions, led in turn by each of the two rival civil war conservative parties, had seduced an assortment of smaller groups, but now faced the music as the infamous European Union Troika called the tune of rule by broken capital. For example, today the global Apple Corporation owes the Irish exchequer €14.3 billion in unpaid taxes.

Yet the outgoing neoliberal  regime propose pushing worker’s retirement age from 65 to 70 over the next few years, pleading that the economy can’t afford the state pension for ordinary people. No wonder there’s a growing antipathy towards the old ruling class!

Hard times

In recent weeks, over 700 patients have been queuing on trolleys as the understaffed, under funded health service crumbles. Meanwhile the corrupt establishment has its pals building the most expensive new hospital in the world –  with estimated costs doubling in a year! The sublime contradiction of China responding to the Coronavirus epidemic by building a hospital in two weeks is the latest point being scored against canvassers.

Housing, tragically, is now beyond a crisis, with over 100,000 people effectively homeless, whole families living in one emergency hotel room without resources, and only a handful of social or public housing new-builds over the last decade. Privatisation and profiteering has failed, creating a disaster in home provision as the very concept of public housing provision was ridiculed by the elite.

Anger is rising, and some of the fragmented left are now building a more effective alliance for the first time, and, quite noticeably, finding real traction. Every home is touched by the failure of the housing market. Even better paid jobs now leave little prospect of saving for a mortgage as the Dail Eireann landlord class hike rents each year.

Fear of populism

Brexit has not featured very much as an issue, the focus being very much on the painful outcomes of a decade of austerity. But there’s apprehension about the turn towards populist nationalism, with little respect towards Trump or Johnson. Ireland is unusual in Europe, in that it has a post-colonial history (at least in the southern 26 counties). But now, even the traditionally conservative farming and rural population seem distrustful, tired of the old patterns of deceit and hypocrisy which used to provide a shoe-in for the right.

The last (2016) election produced a government of national unity (in all but name) with far-right Fine Gael (FG) failing to get anywhere near a majority, and forced to negotiate a ‘conditional’ ad hoc support arrangement with centre right Fianna Fail (FF), and a motley crew of Independents (some of them lining their ministerial pockets so satisfactorily they won’t need to stand again!).  

It was a de facto coalition of the two civil war rivals, and for four years they’ve bragged about an alleged, but non-existent economic recovery, and supposedly improving conditions. This time, all they agree on is their mutual hatred of Sinn Fein, whose steadfast refusal to accept DUP corruption in the North has won them credibility – and a growing fear on the part of the FG/FF axis.  

The electoral register

Age will also be a factor as a younger electorate declines the failed neoliberal agenda. When the outgoing “national unity” Dail closed its doors, it’s 158 seats had a Ceann Comhairle (Head of House or Speaker) x 1, and  FG 47 seats, FF 45, Labour Party 7, Green 3,  Aontu 1, centrist Independents 18, making a total of 121 centre and rightist Deputies. The Ceann Comhairle is supposedly neutral. The strong independent showing follows the betrayal by, and virtual collapse of, the neoliberal Labour party.

Centre Left, and Left deputies won their best ever support since 1918 giving Sinn Fein 22 seats, Solidarity/People Before Profit 6, Social Democrats 2, Independents4Change 1, other left Independents 4, making a fragmented  total of 36  deputy ‘progressive’ deputies. Two of Its more notable performers are now Euro MPs. But there are still capable voices exposing the endemic lies and corruption of the entrenched and reactionary establishment. Bye-elections, opportunistic label changes, and resignations were a feature of this volatile parliament.

The programme of the First Dail was a revolutionary one, espousing democratic socialist principles. Its 1922 civil war defeat ushered in a century of reaction. Now for the first time, parties of the left are beginning to discuss the possibility of a left-of-centre government, though as yet, remaining shy of creating a broad united platform. However, there is growing and palpable hostility towards the rightist establishment, and a slowly emerging class consciousness.

History can’t be denied

Futurology is a dubious science, but there’s a whiff of sulphur about, and an observable pessimism amongst the elites of FG and FF. The centre right Labour Party lacks credibility, but the Greens, despite their previous treachery and the want of credible policy or leadership might attract back some of their old vote.   

Sinn Fein has surged at the expense of the ruling parties

With a week to go, there’s no sign of the usual late resurgence by the establishment this time. And although the state broadcast media gives uncritical open ended interviews to the FG/FF axis while constantly interrupting any left candidate who makes it through the censorship, this may not be enough to stem the growing tide for change.

New contradictions

As its biggest trading partner leaves the EU, the painful post-colonial history of Ireland’s Border Campaigns, coupled with the growing interdependence of the all- island economy are forcing Northern Unionist reconsideration of political realities. The 2020 election will mark a new set of circumstances and produce some new contradictions within Ireland, both north and south.

For 400 years the relativities of England’s first colonial adventure historically inaugurated many of the destructive and exploitative qualities of the new capitalistic mode of production. Now globalised, its economic inequalities and the cruelty of its class oppression are rendering the “representative democracy” model of bourgeois parliament immanently redundant. And this is the real context of the 2020 Irish election.

The hijacking of parliamentary apparatus in the UK, USA, and elsewhere, for the repressive corporate interests of a small elite group and its administrative appendages shows the limitations of the present governmental form. Unable to express the will of the majority to survive and live with some comfort, a new and extended democratic process demands to be evolved. This need is evident in the power-grab by Johnson’s Tories on our neighbouring island. And its significance is not lost in Ireland.

Calm before the storm

The Irish 2020 Election will reveal the inability of the 1922 counter-revolutionary settlement to function much longer, modelled as it was, on the Mother of Parliaments at Westminster. It will produce a government of deep crisis, one which will, in turn, face further economic chaos as the next recession unleashes global financial systemic mayhem.

The question of how a real democracy can be achieved out of all this is now posed. Such a real democracy will have to be the very opposite of the top-down dictatorship of the Dail/Westminster model, where anti-democratic oligarchic rule by the capitalist elite obtains.

And it could express the actual needs of communities, networking their energies to regional assemblies which, in turn, would enable provincial and national assemblies to guide the work of creating a society where equal people harness collective human energies to be used constructively for the benefit of all, and for the responsible stewardship of our living environment.  

The new Dail may prove to be the last gasp of a dying systemic approach. But it may also prove to be the first tentative step on a new road, striving towards a real democratic revolution, thus resuming a century-old task. But this time, in a modern 21st century context, utilising technological progress for the common good! 

The poet, W.B. Yeats described such a revolutionary transformation 100 years ago: 

“All is changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born”.