Labour should abandon FG and seek strong left alliance embracing SF


By refusing to support a Fine Gael-led government, Labour could set out new battle-lines for Irish politics. It's time to break away from the conservative consensus and create an entirely new social and economic agenda, argues Mick O'Reilly

The choice confronting the Labour Party is stark. It can choose to become the senior party of the left, leading a broad and progressive alliance to give the Irish electorate something they never had - a real political alternative to Fianna Fáil.

Or it can adopt a centrist position with Fine Gael in a politically diffused alliance with no coherence other than it is not Fianna Fáil. There will be variations on these themes but the choice ultimately comes down to this.

Eamon Gilmore, in his article in last week's Irish Times, has credibly argued the latter course - a centrist anti-Fianna Fail alliance. Its strongest point is simple mathematics. Add Labour TDs to Fine Gael, throw in the Greens and a few Independents and suddenly you have the makings of an alternative government.

The problem with this analysis is that it is devoid of politics and is constructed on concepts that are years, if not decades, out of date. Ultimately, this is the oldest strategy, tried again and again ever since 1948, and, despite temporary successes, always setting the ground for Fianna Fáil resurgence.

Eamon refers to social democrats in Fine Gael (no one in Fine Gael uses this term, especially since they are part of the European Christian Democrats). What Eamon is actually referring to is the liberal FitzGerald project of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a project which has been dead a long time. Calling up its corpse will not justify a dubious strategy.

Fine Gael voters in Dublin South had the opportunity to elect a liberal in Alan Shatter. They opted instead for Olivia Mitchell, a TD whose record on Travellers hardly puts her into a progressive mould. Fine Gael has lost support in every election since 1982. Hitching its fortunes to a party in terminal decline is hardly a way forward for Labour.

We can go on and on about the death of Civil War politics. The fact is that as long as Fianna Fáil dominates Irish politics as it has done since 1932, the condition of Civil War politics is largely irrelevant. What is relevant is what can be done about the Soldiers of Destiny. And who is going to do it.

Labour now has the opportunity to take up its historical duty to provide a real alternative to Fianna Fáil. Even after its indifferent election result, Labour has substantial power. It can immediately begin to rewrite the landscape of electoral competition.

It can do this by stating that the only alternative to a Fianna Fáil-led government is a Labour-led alliance. If people want to end the conservative consensus, there is only one alternative: Labour and its progressive allies. We draw a line in the sand - on that side stands the right, on our side the left. Let battle commence.

This is more than just a rhetorical convenience. It requires bold strategic decisions. The first move is for Labour to declare it will not support a Fine Gael-led government or vote for a Fine Gael Taoiseach. Rather than closing off an option (which is probably redundant anyway) it creates new ones, the first of which is that Fine Gael will be consigned forever to, at best, a supporting role. It will never lead a government again. Labour dispenses with the Christian Democrats and clarifies the future battle-lines of Irish politics.

Labour must build on its political agenda. We must enter into an honest dialogue with people about taxation and public services. We must convince working people that we, and not protest parties, offer the best agenda to address their concerns - from poverty to house prices, from hospital queues to childcare.

We are one of the least-taxed economies in the EU. That is why we have the worst public services in Europe. We must detach ourselves from the conservative consensus and forge an altogether new social and economic agenda, even if it means confronting powerful vested interests. When dealing with other progressive parties - notably the Greens, Sinn Féin and Socialist Party - we must not arrogantly take them for granted. They have their own legitimate agendas. Within this new progressive alliance we should sit down with them and Independents as equals and invite them to make their mark in a new alliance - and not just around a negotiation table, but in specific campaigns where activists from all parties work together to mutual benefit.

Labour must also develop a strategy of fraternal co-operation with Sinn Féin. As Sinn Féin becomes more and more involved in democratic politics, Labour cannot ignore it or the constituency it represents.

Remember, it was only 10 years ago that Labour spent a lot of time, energy and resources fighting with the Pat Rabbittes and Eamon Gilmores of this world, and now they are seen as future Labour leaders! Surely, the time has come for Labour to extend a similar hand of friendship and co-operation to Sinn Féin. Very little is ever achieved by demonising those with different views.

And what of Fine Gael? Who cares? Fine Gael can support us if it wishes, or throw in its lot with Fianna Fáil.

If the latter, then we should make a home for the genuine liberals who support a progressive agenda. But, ultimately, we can't make decisions for Christian Democrats. It's their call, not ours.

While we shouldn't be hurried into any particular course of action, we should be aware that European and local elections will be coming up in two years. So whichever strategy we adopt, it must be well in place before then. And the first test of a new progressive politics will be coming up in a few months - the Nice referendum rerun. Labour must decide whether it will throw in its lot with the conservative axis of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the PDs. Or, this time, lead the progressive arguments with its prospective partners.

That will tell a story.

Mick O'Reilly is the sacked regional secretary of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union. From 1982-1988 he was a member of the Labour Party's ruling executive. The ATGWU is affiliated to the Labour Party