It is surely no coincidence that Eamon Gilmore ruled out the option of his party sharing government with Fianna Fáil as soon as Fine Gael reached a new decade high of 38% in recent polls. The rise in support for Enda Kenny’s party, coupled with a slowdown to Labour’s dramatic climb of just a few months ago, has put something of a halt to Gilmore’s gallop, and focused his party’s attention once more on its future role as minority partners in government. By cutting out any prospect of entering government with FF the Labour leader has also made it clear to voters that the most likely alternative to the current crowd is a Fine Gael led administration.
and is forced into repeating the crucial surgery that saved the larger party from its almost total demise after the 2002 elections when Pat Rabbitte and Enda Kenny forged the Mullingar accord. In late 1994, Dick Spring and his colleagues did the same for John Bruton whose leadership of Fine Gael was on the ropes before Labour jumped ship from government with Fianna Fáil over what, in hindsight, appears the flimsiest of reasons. Since 1997, the Labour Party has fought two general elections as sidekick, or mudguard, to the larger right-wing party without resolving some of the fundamental contradictions between its self-professed social democratic vision, and the unabashed neoliberalism of Fine Gael. On certain social issues of course, Enda Kenny and his colleagues can concede to Labour as it did in the 1980’s when Garrett Fitzgerald endorsed more egalitarian policies on workers and women’s rights, in particular, but many of these progressive improvements were coming down the line from Europe at any rate. In the midst of recession, with an unresolved banking crisis and unemployment growing to more than half a million next year, the fault line between the right wing economic solutions of prospective FG ministers – such as Richard Bruton, Leo Varadkar and, yes, even George Lee – and Labour’s priorities, will be more apparent than ever before. Should Labour enter into government as a minority party, it will inevitably be forced to bow to the economic and financial prognosis, and the proposed solutions of its senior partners, which in turn represent just a tweaking of the disastrous approach of the current crisis ridden government. In his speech at the James Connolly commemoration at Arbour Hill, Siptu general president Jack O’Connor asked union members to support Labour and other left wing parties in the June elections. At the launch of his party’s European election campaign Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams called for an alliance of the left as an alternative to the tweedledee and tweedledum of governments led by the right wing parties. O’Connor’s call comes as his union celebrates its centenary year and is engaged in reflection of its historic role in promoting equality and a socialist vision of Irish society. “Organising the Union”, a pictorial history of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union published in May, traces the origin and development of a radical organisation that represents up to 200,000 workers today. Over the years the socialist and national vision of its founders, Jim Larkin and James Larkin, has been blurred by decades of counter revolution, of inter union-strife, and periodic recessions, but its current leadership appears determined to return to its revolutionary roots in order to survive the present storm which has seen an unprecedented attack on its members’ living standards. As right wing commentators line up to persuade Labour to forge yet another accord with Fine Gael in advance of a general election, which will invariably take place within the year, the debate concerning the possible strategy and tactics of a real and radical alliance for change has hardly begun.
With the exception of its positions on Europe (which are changing by the day as the government seeks to assuage the concerns of the anti-Lisbon vote) the two biggest parties on the left, Labour and Sinn Féin, have little disagreement on the crucial economic matters of the day. They also share the articulate analysis of the likes of O’Connor and other trade union leaders on the global and domestic causes of the economic and financial meltdown.
These parties along with like-minded independents and the Green Party have the potential at present to attract over 30% of the vote in any forthcoming election. If there was a carefully articulated strategy agreed with, and endorsed, by unions and other progressive forces – on issues such as wages, pensions, welfare, job initiatives, banking rescues, women’s rights, family and child protection, crime and drugs, development aid, environmental protection, and climate change amongst others – such an alliance could forge a clear alternative to right wing governments. They might even recapture the vision of the State’s founders – to which they variously subscribe – in time for the anniversary of the 1916 Rising.