The issue is: has anything really changed? It hardly matters whether Labour is finished if Sinn Féin fills the vacuum and does the same – ie collaborates with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, or does it on its own, in retaining or perhaps consolidating a society of a wealthy elite, a compliant middle class and a sea of misery, humiliation and stress for the rest.
The Sinn Féin rhetoric over the weekend was unsettling: we will not go into government for the sake of office; only if we agree the right terms. Why not: we will not go into government ever with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael. or any party of similar vein?
Sinn Féin has an impulse for government even over and above that of the Labour Party: the symbolic impact of being “in power” (as they see it) in both parts of Ireland at the same time. That will propel it maybe into even greater compromise than Labour has made, under the guise of social democracy and, of course, the “imperative” of electoral arithmetic.
Proinsias De Rossa spoke 23 years ago, on his behalf and on behalf of his then colleagues, including Eamon Gilmore and Pat Rabbitte, about the perils of social democracy. At the inauguration of Democratic Left, he said social democracy had “degenerated into mere electoralism, [had] lost any resolve to be part of a wider strategy for the transformation of society and has settled for dull marginalism”.
'Dynamic alternative' He argued: "There is urgent need for an active democratic socialist party with a strong presence in parliament . . . We must seek to provide the alternative of a dynamic and vibrant left , which would connect into the concerns of people about the need for reform of politics, accountability of politicians, environment, peace, jobs, education . . . Ours will be a politics of empowerment, participation, analysis, and not just an electoral machine."
The bit about “empowerment, participation, analysis, and not just an electoral machine” was perhaps a clue to what would transpire. Note how it left out “a wider strategy for the transformation of society”. Democratic Left quickly surrendered any strategy for the transformation of society by joining in the “Rainbow government” of Fine Gael, Labour and itself and later merging with Labour.
Inequality in mortality The most eloquent commentary on the legacy of that Rainbow government came in the report Inequalities in Mortality 1989- 1998, by the Institute of Public Health, which showed over 5,000 people died prematurely every year because of the scale of inequality here. In both jurisdictions in Ireland, the annual directly standardised mortality rate in the lowest occupational class was 130 per cent higher than in the highest occupational class. From infectious and parasitic diseases it was five time higher; from tuberculosis, four times higher; from mental and behavioural disorders, nearly five times higher; from drug dependence nearly seven times higher.
Not a whit of regard has the political establishment shown for the findings of that report. No quiver of embarrassment has found a spine in Labour to run down over this. And if you doubt that Sinn Féin will do the same as Labour, just remember the rapid volte-face on taxation policy prior to the 2007 election when Sinn Féin thought there was a chance of coalition with Fianna Fáil.
Throughout the weekend, almost continuously it seemed, Pat Rabbitte was on the airways explaining the collapse of the Labour vote. He protested when Labour came to office, along with Fine Gael, there was an “existential” crisis, that Labour had a “mandate” to fix the economy, that Ireland had no money to fund, for instance, social housing or other public programmes, Labour formed only one-third of the government and yet gets all the blame.
“People are angry, even if the Government had no alternative (but to adopt the strategies it did)”. Just to take a few examples of the “no alternative” agenda: was there really no alternative to the following cuts that afflicted most the most disadvantaged communities (this was in the context of public expenditure cuts across the board being just 7 per cent)?
Sports council –23 per cent
Family support agency –33 per cent
Probation services –36 per cent
Drugs programmes –37 per cent
Cosc (violence against women) –38 per cent
Voluntary and community organisations –42 per cent
Youth organisations –44 per cent
Community development – 44 per cent
Women’s organisations – 48 per cent
Voluntary social housing –50 per cent
Sports grants – 60 per cent
Migrants support – 66 per cent
Rapid (urban community development) – 80 per cent
Rural community development – 100 per cent
Travellers programmes – 80 per cent.
(These figures have been compiled by Brian Harvey, an independent social researcher). Not even the late unlamented Progressive Democrats would have devised a strategy as pernicious as that and claim there was no alternative. Treachery has not gone away, you know, and no new leader of Labour will change that.