From tragedy to farce: Labour’s big mistakes in 1918 and 2011

Opinion: Sinn Féin’s pre-democratic past hasn’t gone away, you know

‘After Eamon Gilmore’s resignation, Karl Marx’s quip remains indispensible: everything in history happens twice, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.’ Above,  Eamon Gilmore with Taoiseach Enda Kenny.  Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

‘After Eamon Gilmore’s resignation, Karl Marx’s quip remains indispensible: everything in history happens twice, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.’ Above, Eamon Gilmore with Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Tue, May 27, 2014, 14:13

After Eamon Gilmore’s resignation, Karl Marx’s quip remains indispensible: everything in history happens twice, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. The first time Labour surrendered its political space to Sinn Féin was when it stood aside in the crucial 1918 general election. Its mistake was tragic in that it missed a moment in which Irish politics was radically reshaped and took a form that it would hold for almost a century – until the general election of February 2011 to be precise.

The second time Labour opened the door to Sinn Féin was in the aftermath of that election when Gilmore finally had the opportunity to realign Irish politics by building a serious and radically democratic opposition to the imposition of banking debts and so-called austerity on ordinary citizens. This time, its response was farcical rather than tragic. Farces are driven by the lusts of middle-aged men. In this case, the lust of Labour’s ageing leadership was for power, not sex – it traded the party’s historic long-term opportunity for the immediate and shallow pleasures of one last spin on the merry-go-round of office.

Assumption The one compliment the Labour leaders deserve is the assumption that they knew exactly what they were doing. Immediately after the 2011 election, I wrote here that if the party went into government without a radical renegotiation of the bank deal and the troika programme, “Labour will be devoured from two sides, its radical support eaten by Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance and independents and its ‘respectable’ support consumed by Fine Gael. The voters who were ruthless enough to decimate Fianna Fáil will think nothing of decapitating Labour.” (The ULA has since dissolved into its constituent parts and has indeed devoured much of Labour’s base, especially in Dublin.)

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This was not dazzling insight. It was a mere statement of the obvious – obvious, that is to say, to Eamon Gilmore and his senior colleagues. They knew very well that they were destroying the Labour Party and with it the honourable social democratic tradition it represented. They decided to do it anyway.

There are of course large differences between 1918 and 2011. Ironically, in the first case, Labour screwed up by standing aside; in the second case by not standing aside. But each was a defining moment in which wrong decisions had long-term consequences that could be summed up in two words: Sinn Féin.

It has taken just three years for Sinn Féin to turn the logic of what Labour did in 2011 into stark electoral numbers. They are quite staggering: in 2011, Labour’s vote was twice Sinn Féin’s. In 2014, Sinn Féin’s was nearly three times Labour’s. In terms of the ownership of the mainstream left-of-centre space in Irish politics, this shift seems definitive. The only qualification is that Sinn Féin is still perfectly capable of screwing up its own prospects.

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