By Cillian Gillespie
The failure of the economic recovery in Ireland to deliver for the needs of working-class people is becoming increasingly clear, if anything living standards are worsening. The past number of weeks and months has seen the publication of reports with ample proof of this.
There are now a record 687,000 people waiting for treatment in public hospitals, the vast bulk of whom are waiting to see a consultant as outpatients for the first time. On the census night in 2016, 7,000 people were classed as homeless, rising by 81% since the census of 2011. Today it is estimated that there are 8,000 living in homeless accommodation, including nearly 3,000 children. Many are now being threatened with eviction from their homes by vulture funds with an alarming rise in the number of summary judgements.
Workers’ rights and conditions continue to be undermined. A recent report by Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI) found that one out of every five workers under the age 30 are on temporary contracts, a rise of 40% since 2004. The new public sector pay deal will ensure that two-tier pay for new entrants will continue.
While profits for the top 1,000 companies in Ireland have risen from €22.4 billion in 2015 to €34 billion in 2017, real wages in Ireland, like those in other capitalist economies, have continued to stagnate. This obscene disparity in wealth distribution can also be seen by the fact that the richest 300 have seen their wealth double from €50 billion to €100 billion in the period from 2010 to 2016, while the rest of us were forced to live under a regime of austerity.
Inequality, attacks on workers rights’, the housing crisis and public services starved of investment are the norm of capitalism in Ireland today. Housing policy is geared towards the interests of developers and speculators, we have a tax regime based on maintaining and boosting the profits of big business and the wealth of the super-rich and ultimately our needs and rights are being sacrificed in the interests of an economy run for the 1%.
Even when the interests of the ruling class are not directly economically affected in an obvious way, the establishment is still conservative and unwilling to grant rights for ordinary people. This is clearly evident when it comes to the question of abortion rights. Notwithstanding the outcome of the Citizens’ Assembly, it is clear that the establishment are determined that abortion will only be legislated for in the most limited circumstances. They are also clearly opposed to bringing about the separation of church and state.
We need real and meaningful change if our rights and needs are to be met. If we are to have affordable homes for all, the necessary and substantial increase in public investment, decent jobs with proper wages and conditions, the right to choose for women and pregnant people and the full separation of church and state we need a struggle to end the rule of capitalism. We need a left government that will break with this rotten, backward and regressive system by taking the key wealth producing sectors of the economy into democratic public ownership and directing its resources so that we can provide for all.
Sinn Féin and coalition
Sinn Féin is one of the parties that have benefited from the growing disenchantment from the establishment parties in the last number of years. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that they have rejected the kind of policies outlined above which are necessary to bring about real change for the majority. Recent statements by their leading figures regarding coalition are illustrative of their acceptance of the economic and political status quo.
Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams have reiterated Sinn Féin’s willingness to go into coalition with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in the aftermath of the next general election. Like the Green Party and Labour before them, they are prepared to coalesce with one of the two traditional parties of Irish capitalism.
Both the Fianna Fáil-Green Party (2007-2011) and Fine Gael-Labour (2011-2016) coalition governments were ones that saw the brutal implementation of neoliberal austerity measures, the bailout of the banking system to the tune of €64 billion and the shameful denial of women’s bodily autonomy. The fact that Sinn Féin is willing to take this course of action will no doubt disappoint many who support them or who were open to the possibility that they may represent an alternative to the status quo. It’s an unfortunate truth, but this illustrates that their claim to be a party of the left is a hollow one.
Combined with its broader political trajectory, the collapse of the Northern Executive in the early part of this year acted as a catalyst for Sinn Féin to publicly alter its position on coalition in the South. The party hopes that being in such a government can strengthen its hands in future negotiations with the DUP regarding the re-establishment of the power sharing structures. Their desire to be in government will only be added to given that the DUP has done a deal with the Tories to support the weakened May administration.
The statements of Adams and McDonald are indicative of Sinn Féin’s actual political position and cannot be divorced from its rightward political shift in the last number of years. If it didn’t before, Sinn Féin now fully accepts the logic of capitalism where the ruthless drive for profit by big business, bankers and the super-rich is put before the needs of the workers and young people. This was clearly evident in last year’s general election.
In their election manifesto, Sinn Féin said that if it was in government it would only reverse a small portion of the vicious austerity measures implemented in the period from 2008-2015. Sinn Féin wanted to emphasise their “responsibility” to Irish and European capitalism, by accepting the concept that there was a limited “fiscal space” for increased public expenditure as a result of the neo-liberal straitjacket imposed by both over the course of the crisis.
The manifesto only called a 50c increase in the minimum wage, bringing it up to €9.65 and falling far below the “living wage” proposal put forward by some in the trade unions that was calculated at the time to be €11.50. Despite the fact there were 130,000 on housing waiting lists, their proposal was for only 100,000 homes to be built in the period from 2016 to 2030.
Ultimately, by accepting the limits of what capitalism could afford, Sinn Féin were unwilling to put forward the measures to bring about the real change that working-class people fundamentally aspire to. A government based on their programme would not change conditions for most people. At best they would have to act as a judge and jury and would discriminate on the basis of not challenging the profits of the super-rich. For each person that might gain an affordable home, many others wouldn’t, or likewise for those who would benefit from the limited investment in schools and hospitals, many more wouldn’t.
The Syriza government
A key factor in determining Sinn Féin’s rightward shift in the run-up to the 2016 election was the experience of the Syriza government in Greece and the conclusions they drew from this. This was a government that shamefully capitulated to the diktats of the European Union and Greek capitalism by accepting a deal based on austerity and privatisation, a few months after its election. They did so because they were unwilling to implement radical socialist policies; namely capital controls and nationalisation of the banks and the key sectors of the economy under workers’ control and management.
Clearly the Sinn Féin leadership drew the conclusion from this experience that it was simply not possible to challenge the economic orthodoxy of austerity, neo-liberalism, the EU and capitalism. They were completely uncritical of the approach taken by Alexis Tsipras and Syriza, and in fact Gerry Adams publicly congratulated them after their re-election in September 2015, months after Syriza concluded its rotten deal with the Troika. Syriza quickly abandoned their opposition to austerity and implemented a whole new series of new attacks on the working class and the poor.
Sinn Féin’s positivity towards Syriza after its sellout – of the historic 61% Oxi (No) vote by the Greek working class rejecting the Troika’s terms in the referendum in July 2015 – is hardly a good indication of what they are prepared to do in power. In fact, their acceptance of the EU’s undemocratic and neo-liberal fiscal rules became much more publically explicit after Syriza’s capitulation.
The acceptance of the capitalist market, including its inherent attacks on workers’ pay and conditions was also illustrated in a speech given by Gerry Adams to the Dublin Chamber of Commerce in September 2015. He implicitly supported the idea that workers in Ireland should pay the price for the failure of the capitalist system and the crisis:
“We know that businesses across this state have faced unprecedented challenges over the last seven years… Irish businesses are resilient and have understood the need to adapt and reinvent. Wage bills were cut, investment plans scaled back and operations downsized.”
During the period in which they participated in the Northern Executive, they showed no apprehension in implementing anti-working class austerity measures. In late 2015, they signed up to the “Fresh Start Agreement” that would see the shedding 20,000 public sector jobs and a slashing of the corporate tax rate. In doing so they embraced the right-wing argument that enticing big business with a form of “corporate welfare” is key to developing the economy and that this must be done at the expense of public sector jobs and services. Like the rest of the establishment in the South, they doggedly defend the pitifully low corporation tax arangement and have dropped their demand for a wealth tax in recent budget statements.
While an entire generation of young people has been politicised by the battle for abortion rights, the leadership of Sinn Féin are extremely uncomfortable with the demand for a women’s right to choose and bodily autonomy for women and pregnant people. It wasn’t until 2015 that the party came out in favour of repealing the 8th amendment. Their representatives have made it explicitly clear the party only favours legislating for abortion rights in limited circumstances, namely fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and mental health / suicide (the latter is the status quo).
This does not even cover where there is a threat to a person’s physical health posed by pregnancy. Sinn Féin opposes the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to the North which could legalise abortion. During the last decade, in which Sinn Féin has been in power in the North, thousands of women have had to travel to access an abortion, and the Northern state has criminalised a young woman for using the abortion pill.
Why Sinn Féin support coalition
Ultimately, Sinn Féin’s embrace of coalition with parties of the traditional right is based on the fact that they themselves have moved significantly to the right over the last number of years. There is now less and less of a divergence between their political positions and policies and those of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. There are no indications of opposition from within Sinn Féin to either the coalition policy of the leadership or to the more general shift to the right.
The key issues regarding Sinn Féin’s openness to coalition with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil isn’t just that Sinn Féin would be prepared to bring these discredited parties back into power. Fundamentally, it illustrates that Sinn Féin’s own political position and policies are incapable of achieving the type of real change that working-class people urgently require.
In response to the criticisms of Adams and McDonald’s statements regarding coalition, Sinn Féin will undoubtedly argue that they want to maximise their own vote and seek to ensure that they are the larger party in a potential coalition government. Along with the fact that they will still be in government with the traditional parties of capitalism, a government based on Sinn Féin’s own stated policies will one that will disappoint its supporters and will attack the rights and conditions of the working class as, just like Syriza, it will accept the same logic of the capitalist market and neo-liberalism. It would be against legislating for the right to choose for women and pregnant people.
It is also important to note that a government dominated by Sinn Féin would play a role in aggravating sectarian tension in the North, given its own sectarian approach and positions.
Build the socialist left
Workers, young people, women and LGBTQ people need a party of the Left that represents their real interests. Such a party should not only stand independently against the parties of capitalism in terms of refusing to go into coalition with such parties, it must also stand for a break with the system of capitalism and the implementation of radical socialist policies. Sinn Féin does not constitute such a party.
This is why we need to build an independent and powerful socialist left based on a programme for anti-capitalist and socialist change. This is something the Socialist Party has committed itself to doing.