And so, May 23rd 2014 may indeed turn out to have been a red-letter day in the politics of the 26-county spurious-republic of Ireland.
Local and EU elections have seen very significant shifts in voting patterns with serious repercussions for the three parties which have exchanged power over the past 92 years, and this result may indicate the imminent demise of hegemonic counter-revolutionary misrule that has lasted since 1922.
The quaintly-named Irish Labour Party – a misnomer, since that party substantially represents the interests of middle-class voters, has experienced a virtual wipe-out at the polls. Its first preference vote (19.5%) in the General Election of 2011 plummeted to just 5.3% in the EU elections, with a loss of its two European Parliament seats. In the local elections its share of first preferences was a slightly better 7.2%. The immediate outcome of this was the resignation of party leader Eamon Gilmore, Tánaiste (deputy prime-minister) and Minister for Foreign Affairs.
It is quite likely that in the shake-up to elect a new party leader, and its aftermath, that the old guard in Labour will be shown the door in a feverish effort to ‘renew’ Labour, although it is hard to imagine that anything will save the seats of many of the party’s TDs in the General Election, likely to be called well before its Spring 2016 deadline. While Labour might pull back a percentage point or two, it looks like a party that will need to spend some years finding itself – if it can. Its future may be out of its own hands by now.
Its senior partner in coalition, Fine Gael, now stands on the same EU election percentage as Fianna Fáil – 22.3%, down from 36.1% in 2011. Fianna Fáil, the other cheek of that ideological arse formed out of the Civil War, saw its share go up from its disastrous 2011 percentage of 17.5%, but it can draw cold comfort from that 4.7% rise, being now reduced to just one MEP.
On the EU figures, cumulative support for Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour stands at 49.9%. In other words more than 50% of those who voted have turned their backs on the three misruling parties. That, to anyone accustomed to the monolithic control of those parties, constitutes profound change.
In the EU election, in which it stood just one candidate in each of the three EU constituencies, Sinn Féin saw its support go up from 9.9% in 2011 to almost double that in 2014 – 19.5%. Not only that, each of the Sinn Féin EU candidates either headed the poll or was elected in early counts.
In the local elections Sinn Féin trebled its tally of representatives on the County Councils to 157. This pool of public representatives will provide new candidates in many Dáil constituencies in the General Election. They will, in the meantime, learn their trade, create local networks through highly-organised offices and the strong team-work that Sinn Féin is renowned for. The likely outcome of that is a further rise in the percentage of the poll that Sinn Féin will receive next time out, and a greater number of TDs in the Dáil.
Alongside that, various independents and smaller socialist parties and anti-austerity campaigning offshoots, together with other independents including some conservatives, received massive support in terms of percentages of the EU vote – 30.6%! Working against the big party machines, the independents still managed to win three European Parliament seats. The Socialist Party lost a winnable seat due to the intervention of a Socialist Workers Party candidate in the Dublin constituency, which victory might have been at the expence of Fine Gael’s high profile candidate, Brian Hayes, who barely scraped in.
In the local elections the various independents and the socialist/anti-austerity candidates combined won 237 seats out of 949, another remarkable result.
These results do not guarantee that we will not end up with yet another combination of the three parties of permanent misrule after the next General Election, but they do open up the possibility that we may, for the first time since quasi-independence in 1922, see the possibility of real choice for voters between the right and the left. For that to advance there needs to be an attempt at establishing a rapprochement between Sinn Féin and socialist parties, groups and individuals.
It is possible that the Labour Party, forced by the shock of its decimation at the polls, might sufficiently re-evaluate its stance and policies to reflect, in part at least, the core values for which that party was created. If so, it might be that Labour would also be available to achieve the numbers to form an alternative government, although the current candidates for leadership – one an accountant and the other a senior barrister – do not inspire confidence in any attempt to return to those values, but would appear opportunistic and cynical given those candidates’ track records in the current government.
It might be in Sinn Féin’s interest instead to look to the smaller socialist parties which have done well in these elections and show signs of further growth if properly organised for the next campaign and if election pacts can be put in place to avoid losing winnable seats.
In a post-election article on the Socialist Workers Party website, J O’Toole wrote “Socialists want to relate to Sinn Fein supporters and work alongside them in the South to battle the water charges. We want to emphasise people power as the path to change and that struggle is the stage upon which different approaches to change will be tested.”
At a pre-election ‘Arms around Moore Street’ event, held to protect the historic GPO 1916 Battlefield Site, Socialist Party EU candidate Paul Murphy made a stirring contribution, reminding those present of James Connolly’s last days of freedom in those buildings, and of Connolly’s relevance to the peoples’ cause today.
These are promising signs which should be built on through dialogue between Sinn Féin and socialists. It would be interesting to know if, for example, there was to be contact between the three new Sinn Féin MEPs and Paul Murphy, outgoing MEP and likely to be a candidate in the upcoming General Election, on advice on relevant issues and potential alliances in the EU Parliament. Not only would that contact be valuable in itself, but it would also send a positive signal to socialists and their supporters, and to voters interested in new possibilities. No doubt the new MEPs will also receive advice from Nessa Childers, independent leftist MEP and granddaughter of Erskine Childers who played a decisive part in the lead-up to the 1916 Revolution and the proclaiming of the Irish Republic, and in the defence of that Republic in the Civil War.
It is certain that Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour will attempt to claw back support to prevent the Sinn Féin and socialist surge from gathering further momentum. But there are lessons in historical experience, one such being the Berlin Wall. In just one year, 1989, what seemed like an impregnable fortress, part of the Iron Curtain that separated the Soviet Union and its satellite states from the West, was virtually destroyed. Once the first crack appeared in it, its destruction seemed as if it might become inevitable but happened faster than most might have thought possible. That crack in the Berlin Wall first occurred in the imagination of a few determined dissidents, then spread until the imagining was unstoppable and became reality.
It is possible that a similar phenomenon is at play in this State, where hegemonic power has seemed impregnable during all of the years of this State’s existence. It may be that a sufficient number of voters have been so sickened by abuses of power, by institutional failure and corruption, by a system that ignores the fundamental needs of the many but panders to the excessive wants and desires of the few, and by the signs of a failed State, that they are prepared to take a chance on something different and not yet capable of being fully understood or predicted, overriding fears and prejudices in the process. It may be that this first crack in the fortress of hegemonic power cannot be covered over with political class PR Polyfilla, but that the crack will deepen until the wall falls and profound change comes about.
That might happen sooner than most people think possible. Too early to tell. But we live in interesting times!