Progressive moves will be in the interest of those on left

Members from Labour, Sinn Féin, Social Democrats, People Before Profit, and the Green Party outside Leinster House earlier this week calling for stronger local democracy as part of the ‘More Power To You’ campaign, which was launched by Fórsa, Siptu, and Connect. Picture: Conor Healy

The likely MEP elections Green gallop and a predicted left-leaning parties transfer trend could kick-start a debate about a long-overdue Irish "progressives" political bloc, writes political correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

Like any good Cork man, Sean Sherlock likes to speak his mind. Or, as was the case this week, tweet it.

In just 34 words on Wednesday, the Cork East TD wrote on Twitter that while he is still Labour through and through, it may be time to put “egos to one side” and start to create a “radical” new future for Irish politics.

“One often thinks that @labour @greenparty_ie and @SocDems should be uniting (merging?), leaving personal egos to one side, to create a radical future based on climate action and speaking to the future of work?” he asked.

The words were quickly muffled, with Labour throwing a hand over Sherlock’s mouth and insisting that he was speaking in a “personal” capacity; Greens leader Eamon Ryan giving a polite ‘no’, at least for now; and Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy saying bluntly: “It would be nice if they had told us before telling you.”

However, while Sherlock undoubtedly had one cynical eye on Labour using other parties’ local and European elections rise to its own transfers advantage when he gave his online soliloquy, the kernel of his point remains valid.

The likely Green gallop, the presence of left-leaning Independents, and the significant but scattered liberal candidate vote increase expected to emerge in this weekend’s local and European election results show that Irish politics is undergoing another subtle, important change.

But, while parties and individuals benefiting from the expected shifts in the sand will be happy for now, unless they band together in some way on specific issues their influence — and therefore the voice of those turning to them — still risks being drowned out in the crowd.

Sherlock’s idea is that in a changing post-recession political landscape, there is increased scope for the growth of sensible, liberal, and left-leaning policies to take on existing rhetoric and bigger party spin.

And, given our complex proportional representation voting system and our even more complex Dáil numbers stand-off, the current Irish political battleground is ripe for such an opportunity.

The proposal would not involve any actual merger or pre-election pacts to campaign together in an election itself. Instead, it would be a loose understanding between parties such as Labour, the Greens, Social Democrats, Solidarity-PBP, and left-leaning Independents to push a small number of agreed key reforms together.

And that could similarly limit the need for smaller parties to go into power with larger parties such as Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, or potentially Sinn Féin to see their policies enacted — something which inevitably sees them outnumbered and used as a damaging government mudguard.

“I want to start a conversation about this,” Sherlock told the Irish Examiner. “I’m thinking about the Irish political landscape five, 10 years down the road.

You could have one or two TDs calling for something, or a bloc. You could be in government, and maybe some politicians are itching to be, or you could have policy influence in opposition.

It sounds good in theory, and there are numerous practical reasons why it could happen, not least the predicted local and European elections’ outcome.

For the first time in a decade, the Green Party’s MEP candidates — Grace O’Sullivan in Ireland South, Ciaran Cuffe in Dublin, and surprise star of the campaign Saoirse McHugh in Midlands North West — are all gaining genuine voter backing for their views.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin, Greens leader Eamon Ryan, and Social Democrats co-leaders Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shortall have also been promoting the need for similar-thinking parties to give their other preferences to each other.

And Solidarity-PBP’s Ireland South candidate, Adrienne Wallace, alongside Independent, left-leaning, would-be MEPs are, if not in real contention, at least carving out a genuine constituency presence.

If they work apart, as in previous elections, the most many of these parties or candidates can hope for, for now, is 2%-6% in the polls — hardly the stuff of political dreams.

But work together on agreed key issues, keeping in mind that while there are significant differences between the parties their core outlook on life remains similar, and you can trade in the protest vote for an influence-on-policy vote without ‘selling out’.

The would-be plan sounds good in theory, and it is demonstrably true that the Irish left and centre left’s biggest successes have always been combined single-issue campaigns, from divorce to marriage equality, family planning to the 1980s tax marches to the right-to-water campaign.

However, in practice, it may be somewhat more difficult to pull off for any length of time.

The Greens, in particular, are understandably cautious of the sudden “green-washing” of rival parties candidates on environmental issues to usurp their own growth this weekend.

Party leader Eamon Ryan is understood to be cool on the idea of any policy platform, instead preferring to stay open to future Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil talks.

Similarly, Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy was questioning of Mr Sherlock’s Wednesday message, telling the Irish Examiner that Labour has a tendency to raise these matters when it needs a pre-election bump.

And, if anyone is honest, Solidarity-PBP is unlikely to warm to standing side by side with some other parties they would describe as the not-so-left.

The responses are in part realistic — after all, there is no point in having grand notions if you don’t get your candidate elected —and in part to do with ensuring you are not used as a rival’s Trojan’s horse.

But, bearing in mind a single party’s long-term influence is limited, is it not time for Ireland’s “progressive” parties to look at themselves as well as others when calling for change in how this country works?

The obvious and somewhat dated reaction is that multi-party platforms never work, with bickering, infighting and eventual bitter scattering of participants the usual response.

It misses the point. And, when organised properly, you don’t even have to look too far to see why.

In the US, the rise of Donald Trump has dominated events. However, what has been of equal interest has been a quieter but just as fascinating growth of “progressive” candidates, the most prominent of whom is Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.

A first-time New York congresswoman, Ocasio Cortez is part of a wave of new, mainly female candidates — others include fellow congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar — fighting back against populism.

They have gained traction based on calls for medicare for all, a federal jobs guarantee, a 'Green New Deal’, free public college rights, and tax hikes for the super rich which would normally never be discussed in mainstream US politics.

Now, no one is saying Ryan or Sherlock will suddenly morph into Ocasio Cortez and start lip-syncing “war, huh, good god y’all, what is it good for” every time a Government grenade rolls their way, as she did in a now infamous online response to Republican critics, simply by working together.

But what the US undercurrent does prove is that working together on key issues —while still allowing for inevitable differences — carries far more weight than working apart.

The informal transfer pact and Greens growth in this weekend’s local and European elections may just be an isolated blip in the political dogfight.

But if politics is changing, and it always is, maybe now is the time to embrace it.

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