From Notes of the Month, International Socialism, No.57, April 1973, pp.4-5.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Brian Trench writes: There were some strange ironies in the General Election in Southern Ireland on 28 February. Not least of them was the result – a change of government, although the outgoing government party increased its proportion of the votes. The return of the Coalition (Labour Party and Fine Gael) to power was more than a trick of proportional representation, however. It reflected – distortedly, as only elections can – a widespread desire for change.
The ‘snap’ election was intended by the previous Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Jack Lynch, to secure a safe majority for the Fianna Fail party in order to face the Tory White Paper on Northern Ireland and a number of other imminent problems. Lynch had called it on the issues of national security and ‘law and order’; he fought it on the Coalition’s lack of credibility as a stable alternative; he lost it largely on the frustration and discontent over rising prices and mass unemployment.
Little more than two months after the passing of the vicious Amendment to the Offences Against the State Act, and the two bombs in the centre of Dublin, Lynch was unable to make ‘security’ the leading concern he thought it should be. The Coalition parties insisted too on the need for stable and strong government; Fine Gael reminded the voters ad nauseam of their record as founders of the state (they didn’t bother to remind them of their record as ‘law and order’ fanatics of the fascist Blueshirts of the 1930s); but the Coalition’s 14-point ‘statement of intent’ also stressed the need for price control, removing VAT from food, halting redundancies and reducing unemployment, improving social security benefits and increasing housing output. It was on these points that they were able to score, so that neither in terms of a big lobby for suppression of the republicans nor of a lobby in defence of them did the question of repression and the Dublin government’s active support for the British in the North become a central concern of the elections.
The ‘republican’ dissidents in Fianna Fail who had upset the Lynch government in the last few years did badly, except for two, Neil Blaney and Charlie Haughey, who got big personal loyalty votes. Ex-minister Kevin Boland’s party, Aontacht Éireann (Republican Unity), a traditionalist nationalist organisation, was forced to take up the ‘bread-and-butter issues’ late in the campaign, when the constant hammering at ‘the national claim’ to the North was making little impression. None of the Aontacht Éireann candidates got anywhere near being elected, although the party had one deputy in the last Dáil (parliament), and Boland, the party leader, was a Fianna Fail minister up to 1970.
The Official Sinn Fein did marginally better than Aontacht Éireann, getting around 5 per cent of the votes where they had candidates, but this was largely due to their playing down the national question. The programme for their ten candidates was mildly reformist, not much in advance of the Labour Party programme of 1969. Although Sinn Fein tried to present themselves as socialists, they hardly gave any serious attention at all to the problems of industrial workers. Their answers to the problems of inflation and unemployment were remarkably like those of the Coalition (more price control, VAT off food, more state investment). Sinn Fein did not show that they had any reservations – if indeed they have – about the possibilities of legislating for the kind of social change which they as ‘socialists’ claim to stand for. Indeed, they were at pains to show that they wanted to play the respectable parliamentary game. When supporters of the Provisional Republican Movement made their one small mark on the elections by throwing two eggs at a Fianna Fail rally speaker, the Officials rushed out a statement condemning this action. When members of the Socialist Workers Movement picketed a meeting at which Jack Lynch was speaking in Waterford, ‘Officials’ were careful to avoid any impression that they might be associated with the picket. When Máirín de Burca, one of the joint secretaries of Sinn Fein, was asked on BBC-TV whether she thought the low vote for Sinn Fein indicated a popular rejection of the IRA’s politics, she claimed that her ‘party had no connection at all’ with the IRA. For all the ‘socialist’ rhetoric, the Officials have simply reflected the traditional oscillation in the republican movement (and throughout its history) between pure militarism and reformism.
It is clear, however, that many of Sinn Fein’s votes came from former Labour voters thus establishing that many see it as a left-wing group. Through the tricks of proportional representation and thanks to the Coalition agreement to call for second preferences for candidates of the other Coalition party, the Labour Party managed to gain seats in the Dáil while dropping their share of the votes. Most significantly, the Labour vote in Dublin and the other big towns tumbled disastrously (in some cases by as much as 20 or 25 per cent). It would appear, then, that a significant proportion of urban workers defected from Labour, but by giving votes to Sinn Fein, or, indeed, to one of the big bourgeois parties, showed that they have not broken with parliamentarism.
The class basis of the Irish political parties, or-to put it somewhat differently – the voting behaviour of the social classes in Ireland, is by no means as clearly defined as in most other European countries. The clashes and conflicts in the class struggle are rarely reflected, even approximately, in the divisions between the parliamentary parties. More often they are reflected in inner-party disputes. Jack Lynch’s government weathered the most amazing series of crises in his party, on the streets and in the unions. Liam Cosgrave’s government may not face problems of the same order in the immediate future, but he too could ride them out, and help smooth the way for the solution which the British ruling class is seeking to the Irish crisis, unless socialists succeed in bringing a new kind of politics into the economic class struggle and the national struggle – working-class politics that refuse to be distracted and confused by the mock battles in parliament.
The republican movement has shown that it cannot do this, vacillating, as it does, between adventurism and reformism. It is clear also that the kind of contradictions are arising which would allow this to be done. To take but one important example: the National Wage Agreement, which sets the level for wage rises over an 18-month period, is due for re-negotiation by the Employer-Labour Conference at the end of this year. Preparations for a new Agreement will begin much sooner. The Coalition government has indicated quite clearly how it hopes to make sure of a favourable new Agreement – the Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, put Labour men into the posts of Minister for Industry and Commerce, and Minister for Labour. The Coalition government aims to ‘secure the trust and confidence of the representatives of workers in hammering out an agreed policy to tackle inflation.’
The General Election was very far from being ‘a triumph for the people’, as Liberty, the paper of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union proclaimed. Indeed, the leaders of that very union, who are committed to the National Wage Agreement, could see their joy at having a union member in the government soon dispelled. It is just possible that socialists in the unions will be able to use the close tie between the union leaders and the government as well as the rising discontent over roaring inflation to cut through the barrier between economic militancy and political awareness, and develop a real political alternative. It is just possible, and vitally necessary.
Last updated on 15.2.2008