GERARD HOWLIN: What is ‘Left’ of Irish politics? That’s the decisive question for voters

Who is Left, let alone ‘hard-Left’? Labour claims to be Left, while decrying the hard-Left, writes Gerard Howlin

WHEN RTÉ news announced to a waking nation on Monday morning that the “hard-Left” Syriza party had won the Greek election, muscle memory came to mind, albeit hours later. Muscle memory is learnt behaviour. Riding a bicycle is an example. Once you know how, it’s easier thereafter.

Did you ever get a new smart phone or a new computer? All those things you used to be able to do semi-automatically now need to be thought-through. You yearn for the clapped-out, familiar model you gave up on.

Muscle memory is great for recall. It’s not so good for learning new ways of thinking. As the Dáil resumed yesterday for the run-in to the general election, a lot of current thinking is just muscle memory. We know everything is changed, but our auto-reflexes haven’t caught up.

Syriza hasn’t been ‘hard-Left’ for months now. It jettisoned the basis on which it was elected last January, and signed up for another bailout, based on swingeing austerity. What is stunning about Alexis Tsipras’ performance is the scale and style of the U-turn.

He went right down to the line with the EU, risked everything on a surprise referendum, and then, with an enhanced mandate at home to fight austerity in Brussels, he promptly executed a stunning capitulation in July. Many of his colleagues, not least his one-time finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, immediately labelled that deal a sell-out. Unable to hold his Syriza party together, Tsipras this time jettisoned his critics, went to the country again, and won again.

Former Greekfinance minister, Yanis Varoufakis
Former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis

He is now master of his party, and the Troika are effectively masters of Greece. He is in office, but not in power. His hard-left critics, formerly within Syriza, are now outside Greek electoral politics.

What fascinates me are the parallels here. It is learnt behaviour over decades, muscle memory if you will, to deride the ‘hard-Left’ at home. They were small, fractious, and seemingly irrelevant.

Lest there be any doubt about their unsuitability, they proved the point by putting on regular gladiatorial displays of internecine combat. This is an inherited narrative, still current, but markedly less relevant. Definition, of course, is an acute difficulty.

Who is Left, let alone ‘hard-Left’? Labour claims to be Left, while decrying the hard-Left. One of the few points of unity among all who claim a place in ‘real-Left’ politics is the rejection of Labour’s pretensions to any place in that pantheon at all.

Labour itself, a century-old amalgam of trade unionists, socialists, social democrats and socially concerned liberal flâneurs is a case in point. Its amalgamation with Democratic Left (formerly the Workers’ Party, which itself had its roots in the Official IRA) and the prominence of cadres from that tendency within Labour over the past decade, is a case history in the shifting meaning of the term Left.

Labour’s and the Government’s survival depend on the voters’ answers to the questions of that party’s role in government and its purpose in politics. Ruairi Quinn’s impassioned defence of the role of Labour, at last week’s think-in, is the text of its speech from the dock.

Less obvious, but now critically important, is the insistent claim of Sinn Féin to be front and centre of real-Left politics. That positioning is essential to its fortunes, but is deeply contested elsewhere on the Left.

Is it truly a party of the Left, with foundational principles based on a radical shift of existing patterns of ownership and distribution of wealth? Or is it a populist, nationalist party, fundamentally tribalist in nature and hardwired to compromise when an appropriate opportunity arises?

Sinn Féin is fighting on two fronts, electorally. Firstly, it wants to increase support among skilled, working-class and middle-class voters and, at the same time, it must defend itself against an increasingly coherent and focused challenge on its own Left flank. This is why the mooted, imminent union of Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit is potentially alarming for them.

They know, from bitter experience in the Dublin South West by-election, when the AAA’s Paul Murphy spectacularly took a seat they expected to win, that this is a real threat in a few constituencies at the next election.

Strategically, it is potentially a bigger threat to their share of any public platform predicated on opposition to the status quo.

AAA’s Paul Murphy
AAA’s Paul Murphy

As this Dáil winds up, there is one great ideological divide among Irish voters. In turn, each side of that divide is being fought over by contending forces. The so-called establishment parties of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil all represent continuity of sorts. How many will still be so angry on polling day that they will actually vote for fundamental change is the first pivotal question.

Then, there are those who, out of ideological commitment or fear of the unknown, vote for continuity, and opt for the coalition or Fianna Fáil.

Among voters committed to a fundamental alternative, clearer lines of choice are emerging. Sinn Féin, even with its opinion poll numbers temporarily abated, remains the largest coherent bloc within a permanently much larger political alternative.

Their hegemony within the alternative, however, is being sharply challenged, in a relatively few constituencies, such as Cork North Central, Dublin Bay North, Dublin Mid-West and Limerick, by the emerging Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit Alliance merger.

Sinn Féin’s shimmying on variations of policy on Irish Water means it has left itself open to the charge of being soft and unreliable. Paul Murphy was quick to put the boot in and make a sharp distinction. “I’m for exposing Sinn Féin,” he said on Newstalk.

Sinn Féin’s Senator David Cullinane accused Murphy of being a “political sectarian” and having “no interest in ever working towards an alternative government to FF/FG or Labour”.

Sinn Féin’s Senator David Cullinane
Sinn Féin’s Senator David Cullinane

In the muscle memory of the political establishment and a too insular chattering class, this is a derisory replay of the Judean People’s Front V People’s Front of Judea, as satirised in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

But the scale of the electorate at stake is now of a quantum difference. The shape of Irish politics is permanently changed. Sinn Féin is vying for leadership of an alternative political narrative. It is doing so from a position of steadily acquired strength, but also in advance of the single seminal challenge it has yet to meet.

That challenge is not the next election, but the inevitable retirement of the Gerry Adams-Martin McGuniess dual leadership, at some point in the coming years. This is potentially its moment of greatest weakness.

And this is why it fundamentally matters whether a credible, unified force to its Left emerges at the next election. Our inherited, nearly century-old pattern of analysis is no longer fit for mapping ground that has shifted.

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