Holding the fort
At last a new government has been formed. James Harvey looks at the whys and wherefores
After a drawn-out period of negotiation and political positioning following the general election in February, a coalition including the two long standing rivals of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil was formed on June 26.
The newly installed government in Dublin - a grand coalition, which also includes the Greens and has the support of some independent TDs - has been widely hailed as marking the end of ‘civil war politics’: the historically shaped division which has defined electoral politics since the 1920s. Consequently this has given political commentators, both in Ireland and internationally, the opportunity to retell the familiar story about the origins of the two ‘main parties’ in the politics and the violence of the Irish civil war that followed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922. Whilst this history has some importance in shaping the style and language of contemporary bourgeois politics in Ireland, in reality for a very long time the significant divisions in the state have been about the future direction of Irish capitalism, not which side your grandfather took after the signing of the treaty.
The coalition primarily arose from the somewhat inconclusive election results. Both Fine Gael, the outgoing party of government under taoiseach Leo Varadkar, and the main opposition, Fianna Fáil, led by Micheál Martin, lost seats, whilst Sinn Féin made strong gains - both in seats and first-preference votes. With Fianna Fáil on 38 seats, Sinn Féin on 37 and Fine Gael on 35, coalition-building became the order of the day.1 With assorted independent TDs, the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats and smaller left parties such as People before Profit being elected, the possible combinations for a coalition government seemed endless.
However, in practice the potential coalition partners were actually quite limited. Although Sinn Féin announced its arrival in the responsible mainstream by joining in the dance and declaring its willingness to enter a coalition, it could not find takers in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.2 SF also played with the idea of forming a ‘left government’ with an unholy alliance of smaller ‘anti-system’ groups and independents, but, despite the illusions sown by some on the Irish left, who supported the ‘left government’ call, this too was never really possible, given the political and parliamentary arithmetic.3 Keeping Sinn Féin outside the tent and branding it an unacceptable partner was too important an electoral strategy for the mainstream parties to abandon before they really had to.
So, despite the rhetoric and the ‘historically informed’ commentary about a “stepping stone towards healing the wounds of the civil war”, the only feasible and politically realistic coalition was the one that finally emerged last weekend.4 The essential dynamic that brought Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Greens together as partners in the same government was the common commitment of all parties to the cause of Irish capitalism in ‘these times of unprecedented crisis’. This arrangement had been prefigured by the confidence and supply arrangement which Micheál Martin and the previous Fine Gael taoiseach, Enda Kenny, agreed in 2016, and which continued until the February election. When the interests of Irish capitalism were paramount, experience has shown that these ‘historical enemies’ could work together in that common interest.
There was also the more mundane matter of the political calculations and interests of the party leaders. After suffering a reverse in February, Leo Varadkar has had a good coronavirus crisis and has seen his personal opinion poll ratings soar to a 75% approval, whilst his party has also gained support to stand at 37%. Sinn Féin has remained an important force on 25%, but both Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil have lost even more support since the election: his party now stands at 14%, with the Greens re-emerging on Martin’s heels with 12%.5
On these findings another election would probably see both Fine Gael and Sinn Féin improve their representation in the Dáil, although with neither party strong enough to rule alone, Fianna Fáil would slide even further behind as an also-ran. The electoral benefits are clear for both Varadkar - stay in government and build on his poll ratings for a future victory - and Martin - gain seats at the cabinet table and avoid a potential election defeat. Although the programme for government will be designed for four years with a two-yearly-rotating taoisigh (Micheál Martin in first, followed by Leo Varadkar), the government appears to be little more than a prelude to the next general election.
While the taoisigh rotate and the Greens reacquaint themselves with the dilemmas of high office - whether to travel by ministerial car or cycle into the Dáil - the real crises facing the Irish state and economy will continue to deepen. Although there is a self-congratulatory mood amongst Ireland’s politicians about the state’s response to the coronavirus crisis (particularly compared to the disasters unfolding in Britain), their real problems are only just beginning.6 The Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS) and the Covid-19 weekly payment of €350 are set to run until the end of August. The cost of the Covid-19 payment to around 450,000 people amounts to €160 million per week, whilst 400,000 people receive TWSS, which has cost the Irish state €1.7 billion so far. Both schemes contribute to a government deficit that is estimated to reach €30 billion by the end of this year.
Like all the developed capitalist countries, the Irish state provides essential life support for the economy. The financial pressures to switch off that life support will grow just at the time when businesses collapse and unemployment really starts to kick in. In anticipation of the recession and unemployment ahead, the new government has promised a July jobs initiative and stimulus package, focusing on key areas like tourism, hospitality and retail. Various business interest groups are already putting in their demands in the expectation that a much larger economic plan will be launched in the autumn. But, despite rising hopes and demands, there are no concrete plans and no sign of the resources that will pay for them.
If the impact of the coronavirus crisis were not enough, long-standing problems with hospital waiting lists and healthcare, the shortage of decent affordable housing and the future of the state pension system are all mounting up in the new government’s in-tray. And, fast approaching down the line, is the possible impact of a ‘hard Brexit’ on cross-border and cross-channel trade and economic activity. Whilst the transnationals may retrench their operations in Ireland, the possibility of tariffs after Brexit threaten the domestic economy, especially the important farming sector.
Given the nature of the Irish economy, its dependence on international trade, and the contradictory complexities of its economic and political relationships with both the European Union and Britain, this combination of Brexit and coronavirus will deal a hard blow. Given these underlying dynamics, the new grand coalition government will be no more capable of dealing with the problems than either its predecessors or its neighbours - expect more rhetoric than substance. The sweeping language of change and transformation will grow in volume, as political expectations shrink, along with the economy. All that the Irish capitalist parties and their new government have to offer is words.
But do the small forces of the Irish left offer anything better? As Irish capitalism makes the working class pay for its crisis, can the left offer any real alternative beyond protest and electoral pacts for a left government? Irish capitalism is bringing forth its ‘solution’ to the crisis in the form of the Martin-Varadkar-Ryan government. Now is the time for our movement to begin to build our answer and our programme for the real transformation of society by the working class, both in Ireland and internationally.
‘Sinn Fin’s success, left’s collapse’ Weekly Worker February 13.↩︎
‘Illusions of the left’ Weekly Worker February 29.↩︎
‘Power, not office’ Weekly Worker May 25.↩︎