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Red herrings and reds

Questions on Sinn Féin dominate Solidarity-PBP think-in press conference

What do the radical socialists of the Solidarity-People Before Profit parliamentary alliance want? Fewer questions on the outcome of the next election, would be a fine first guess. A half-dozen questions on the parties’ potential relationship to their more numerous, nationalistic colleagues in Sinn Féin were posed to Richard Boyd-Barrett and Ruth Coppinger, representing the leadership of the group’s 6 TDs at a press conference during the group’s think-in earlier today. Sinn Féin have been characterised by a “right-ward drift” of late said Boyd Barrett, and the Shinners effectively rule themselves out of a left-wing government if they appear interested in “propping up” either of the Civil War parties, or indeed Labour.

It was put to the two leaders that the numbers do not appear to be there, electorally speaking, for a left-wing government to be returned whenever Taoiseach Varadkar decides to cut loose from the Soldiers of Destiny. They might need some propping up. Au çontraire, said Boyd Barrett. There are majorities in favour of a large-scale social housing programme, of repealing the Eighth Amendment, and more besides. Boyd-Barrett said more than once that the group doesn’t want to be in government for “its own sake”. “We want a left government that’s going to address the housing crisis, deal with the chaos in our health service, repeal the Eighth Amendment, deal with climate change, defend workers’ rights. It’s not worth being in government if you can’t do those things, and if you betray the promises you made to the electorate before elections” – look at Labour. Looking to court the support of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and indeed their voters, is “mutually exclusive”, he said, with forming a left-wing government. Ireland needs a government to “break with capitalism, break with the market”, said Coppinger. It was clear however that the repeated interrogation as to their position on Sinn Féin annoyed the party’s representatives, and that most headlines coming out of the meeting will be refer to the issue is probably something of a disappointment.

Boyd-Barrett and Coppinger used the phrase “red herring” on more than one occasion in response to questions about one issue or another. The idea of water charges for excessive usage is a red herring for the real issue at stake, as is the idea of reintroducing bedsits to combat the housing crisis instead of a large-scale programme of house-building and acquisition. “Bedsits, AirBnb, they’re all marginal reasons why people might not be able to get a place to live. The reason people can’t get a place to live is because there isn’t a program of social and affordable housing – it’s as simple as that”, said Coppinger.

It was here that the group seem most convincing, or at least the most sure-footed in their sense of what ought to be done. Build 50,000 new homes next year (and requisition 30,000 vacant properties) and 20,000 in years thereafter, wrest the grip of vulture funds and landlords on the market away from them. On the first day of the new Dáil term, said Boyd Barrett, they intend to introduce a Bill on a Constitutional amendment which would provide for a right to affordable housing for all. What this would achieve in practical terms was not spelled out.

In terms of that coming election, whenever it arrives, the pair did at least outline their aims and hopes. PBP running a candidate in every constituency is a target, although Boyd Barrett admitted it remains to be seen whether that is achievable. Gaining seats in Limerick and Dublin Bay North, in reaching distance after the previous election, are priorities – though whether a candidate from each party will run and split the vote in Dublin Bay North again was not definitively answered.