Dream of a left-wing government slipping away and not just because of Sinn Féin slump

Too many on the left are content to whine from the sidelines and unwilling to make compromises that forming a government require

One of the more striking contributions in the Dáil’s long debate on the Stardust apology on Tuesday was from Catherine Connolly, the left-wing Galway Independent who currently holds the seat once dignified by no less distinguished a posterior than that of President Michael D Higgins.

“From day one,” Connolly told the Dáil in the final speech of an emotional afternoon, “a narrative was determined because the powerful were in charge. The powerful have remained in charge and the narrative remained the same until today. Now, it has been lifted off and the Taoiseach has had to stand here and tell people they are innocent. They knew that from day one, but the powerful, through the institutions of the State, told them differently ... The powerful protect the powerful.”

This analysis of the Stardust tragedy – the powerless versus the powerful – has been heard repeatedly in the past week, inside the Dáil and outside it. It relates how the political representatives of a callous establishment acted against the interests of the ordinary people whose lives were turned upside down by the disaster. It’s hard to argue against it when considering the State’s response after the fire and for a long time afterwards.

But the subtext for many advocates of this is clear: that this “evil elites vs virtuous masses” model of understanding the world still holds true today. This is the essence of the populist critique of politics, here and elsewhere. I am not sure that this view of the world still stands up to much scrutiny today – the fact it was a Fine Gael Taoiseach delivering the apology would tend to undermine it, no? – but there is no denying its continued potency in the politics of the 2020s.


Let us accept it at face value, though, and ask: why? Why can the powerful protect the powerful, as Connolly asserts?

It might have been understandable in the early 1980s when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were an unchallengeable duopoly in Irish politics. In the three general elections held over the course of 1981 and 1982, the combined Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil vote was just under 84 per cent.

But the picture is very different today, when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael together can hardly break 40 per cent in the polls. In the three elections since 2011, their average combined vote has been 47 per cent.

So why do they still dominate? Easy answer: because they’re in Government. And why is that? Because the forces of the left in Irish politics have preferred to remain divided, have been wary of the responsibility of power and unwilling to make the compromises that forming a government require. They have left government to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, content to whine on the sidelines, content in the knowledge that nobody ever lost their seat by being too critical of any government.

See how left-wing parties skedaddled from the prospect of power – and with it, compromise, and responsibility – after the last two elections. Yes, it would have meant doing a deal with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. But in return, they would have got enough power to hold the powerful to account, if they wanted.

Only one left-wing party stood up – the Greens. They have been rewarded with the greenest Government ever. Have they got everything they wanted? Nope. But if their mood at last weekend’s conference is anything to go by, they have got enough to make the experience worthwhile. Might they lose all their seats? Maybe. I suspect not. But even if they do, they’ll come back and have another go. Because they have learned that if you want to achieve your political objectives, you have to get into government.

Will the other parties – and Independents – of the left learn that lesson? There’s no sign of it. The Independents jealously guard their independence, unwilling to be tainted by anything so grubby as membership of a party with a whip system. The Social Democrats remain hostile even to questions about a merger or alliance with Labour. No government will ever be socialist enough for People Before Profit. As a result, the non-Sinn Féin left remains divided, weak and ineffective.

Look at it another way: between the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats, People Before Profit and the left-wing Independent technical group, there is a total of 36 TDs. Sinn Féin currently has 36 TDs. So does Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael has 33.

This is not just a question of what might have been; it is also about the future. The decline in Sinn Féin support over the last year or so has meant that the left-wing dream of a government without either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael looks unlikely. It will remain so as long as the left-wing parties and TDs in the Dáil remain so scattered and fissiparous.

Meanwhile, the pressures of immigration are roiling our politics with a new explosiveness, as the issue is weaponised by right-wing Independents. A retreating Sinn Féin has taken to insisting in every statement, “we do not favour open borders”. Of course they don’t. Nobody does.

This is about looking over their shoulders at the Independents who are exploiting the issue – and whose game plan is clearly to be available for coalition with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil after the next election. I’m sceptical about those prospects. But you can’t rule it out if everyone else stays off the stage.

You’d wonder what it would take for politicians on the left to stand up and articulate a set of common values that could form the basis for a governing bloc.

In a way, it’s no wonder Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are still in Government, despite the halving of their support. They’re the ones who really want it.

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