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Time to break the political mould

Progressive political forces and parties must ally electorally


In calling for an immediate general election, the Labour Party leader, Eamon Gilmore, has increased pressure on the government and given voice to the growing discontent about the lack of political leadership as the country slides into a severe recession. Yet, an election on its own will do little to provide the political alternative that the country desperately needs; for that a much bolder step is necessary.

This bold step is nothing less than to break the mould of Irish politics and build a new political force with a realistic chance of winning power. For the first time in 90 years, since the historic election of 1918 when Sinn Féin dramatically redrew Ireland’s electoral map, that opportunity is now in our grasp. What is needed is for progressive political forces to come together into an electoral alliance. Central to this must be the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and the Green Party, as well as progressive independents and other small parties like Joe Higgins’s Socialist Party. Such an electoral force would help to mobilise a wider base of support among trade unions, community organisations and many sympathetic academics and artists. It could also draw in some of the more socially concerned among both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The last Irish Times/MRBI opinion poll gave Labour, SF and the Greens 26 per cent support between them, just one point behind Fianna Fáil at the time. Add in some independents and this level of support offers a realistic prospect of winning power.  That shows the historic opportunity now to be grasped.

Neither a Fianna Fáil-Labour nor a Fine Gael-Labour coalition would provide the new leadership that the country so urgently needs. Nothing less than ‘Gilmore for Taoiseach’ is sufficient.

Of course, knitting together such an alliance would take great political skills. While the Greens might be natural bedfellows with Labour, they could hardly be seen publicly to contemplate such an alliance while still in government with Fianna Fáil. An even greater obstacle is the traditional antipathy to Sinn Féin among many on the left, but if a common electoral platform were negotiated such antipathy could in time be overcome.

Indeed, the outlines of what might constitute such an electoral platform are already emerging in the alternative proposals being put forward by the Labour leader and by leading trade unionists to deal with the present crisis. Instead of the ‘slash and burn’ approaches of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the business organisation, IBEC, this alternative is focused on how to save as many jobs as possible, on how to build a more strong and capable public service, and on making those who benefited most from the boom pay most for the recovery.

For example, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has proposed a new 48 per cent income tax band and a new property tax, both eminently sensible and progressive proposals at the present time. It has also proposed a ‘national recovery bond’ to which the public could subscribe. These echo and make more precise what others on the left are urging. A recent paper written for the Community Platform on Another Ireland is Possible maps out in a different way the basis for an alternative future (see first box, page 36). As ICTU general secretary, David Begg, put it: ‘We pursued economic growth with a willful disregard for quality of life. For 10 years we generated a current budget surplus averaging 5 per cent each year. Yet we squandered it all on pro-cyclical tax shelters for the business elite. We need a social solidarity pact which ensures that the burden is not borne by those least able to bear it. That is the type of leadership this country needs’ (in The Irish Times, Dec 17th 2008).

This is why an election in the near future would be insufficient. For, as Green Party leader and Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, said in response to Eamonn Gilmore’s call for a general election, what would be likely to emerge would be a Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition. Whether that or a Fine Gael-Labour coalition, neither would provide the new leadership that the country so urgently needs. Nothing less than ‘Gilmore for Taoiseach’ is sufficient.

Irish society badly needs two things when it comes to political leadership. One is to put people in power who are capable and have a vision for the country’s future, a vision that is inclusive and that seeks to build an economy to serve the needs of all citizens, especially the most vulnerable. When in power between 1992 and 1997, Labour provided what were probably the two most capable and forward-looking governments the state has ever had. From 1997 onwards Fianna Fáil returned to power with the Progressive Democrats and systematically squandered what had been achieved through a policy of reckless tax-cutting.

Most shamefully, we end our boom with far too much poverty and inequality in Irish life and wealthy economic elites too used to having governments who do their bidding.

The second element that is needed is good policies informed by fresh and ambitious thinking. Instead of a fixation with cutting costs in the public service, nothing is more urgently needed today that a vision of a capable and reforming public service and the practical policies needed to achieve it. Instead of the ‘regulation lite’ that has done such damage to our banking system and to the state’s international reputation, we need a system of firm regulation in the national interest, ensuring that the market works for the public good not for the good of rich individuals.

It is hardly credible to go to the electorate without offering them the prospect of a Labour-led progressive government capable of developing and implementing robust policies to address these urgent needs. And beyond these lie many deeper challenges that have been hidden by the Celtic Tiger boom but now become more evident again. We have an economy far too dependent on foreign investment which has shown little capacity to generate the innovation needed to build strong indigenous companies. New policies for long-term and sustainable economic development are badly needed. And, perhaps most shamefully, we end our boom with far too much poverty and inequality in Irish life and wealthy economic elites too used to having governments who do their bidding. Irish society badly needs a radically reformed welfare state that is effective in reducing poverty and in providing quality public services for those on low incomes as well as those on high ones.

To achieve these, we need a leadership capable of confronting the crisis in values that has seen corruption become far too pervasive in our public life (both among economic and political leaders) and violence far too commonplace in our homes and on our streets. It needs a new conversation with itself about what ‘republicanism’ means, as our political leaders have so thoroughly besmirched its ideal of investing in the ‘res publica’, the public sphere.

All this would be very timely as we begin preparing for the centenary of 1916. For these reasons, a fundamental political re-alignment is overdue in this country. As we see it happening in the election of Barack Obama in the United States, in the emergence of a wave of centre-left governments in Latin America (see box, right), we need to ask ourselves why it cannot happen here. For the first time in almost a century, the awful mess our economic and political elites have got us into opens a window of opportunity to relegate Fianna Fáil to the sidelines of our political system and to offer an opportunity for a new beginning.


It works in South America

One of the great surprises of contemporary international politics is the emergence of a wave of left-wing governments in South America over the past decade. Left-wing leaders and parties have got to power after building an alternative through popular mobilising and organising; in some countries they have made a breakthrough in political systems for long dominated by two large conservative parties. What distinguishes this ‘new left’ is its open and pluralist nature, unlike the dogmatism of the old left, and its commitment to deepening democracy through such imaginative initiatives as the participatory budgetary processes at municipal level, now widely practised in Latin America wherever the left holds power.

Two countries, in particular, hold valuable lessons for Ireland. Uruguay, a country with a population a little smaller than Ireland’s, was since independence dominated by the Colorado and Blanco parties. However, since the 1970s a group of small left-wing and progressive Christian parties formed as the Frente Amplio or Broad Front has gradually built up its base of support, winning power first at municipal level before finally gaining the presidency and a majority in both houses of Congress in 2004 with over 50 per cent of the popular vote.

Costa Rica has almost exactly the same population as Ireland and has been known as the Switzerland of Central America. After three decades of very successful social and economic development from the 1950s to the late 1970s, Costa Rica entered into a deep economic crisis that severely undermined its earlier successes.

Corruption became common among senior government leaders but politics remained dominated by the mildly social democratic PLN and the Christian Democratic PUSC until in 2000 a new party, the Citizens Action Party (PAC) emerged out of spontaneous national protests against the privatisation of the ICE (in Irish terms, a combination of the ESB and Eircom) which succeeded in reversing it. Though new, the PAC came within one percent of winning the presidency from statesman and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Oscar Arias, in 2006 and is now the main opposition party; the PUSC, despite having occupied the presidency from 1998-2006 received only 3.5 per cent of the national vote in 2006.


Civil society must mobilise

As part of its commitment to a more equitable, just and inclusive Ireland, the Community Platform, a network of 28 national networks and organisations within the Community and Voluntary sector of social partnership, commissioned a paper examining new responses to Ireland’s socio-economic challenges. The paper, written by Dr Mary Murphy of NUI Maynooth and Professor Peadar Kirby of UL, identifies the major weaknesses of Ireland’s model of development as being its heavy dependence on foreign investment as the engine of economic growth, the highly unequal distribution of its wealth and income, and a state that has bent over backwards to satisfy the needs of foreign corporate capitalists over those of its own most vulnerable citizens. Examining the nature of wealth and income distribution in Ireland, the severe social consequences of high levels of inequality, the impact of budgetary policy on income distribution, and investment in public services such as health, education and housing, the paper concludes that the Irish state and policy makers have done very poorly. Furthermore, looking at proposals for changing this, such as the Developmental Welfare State proposal of the National Economic and Social Council (NESC), the paper finds little hope for fundamental changes within the present development model. It therefore asks: “Is there a better model of development for Ireland?”

In answering this question, the authors trace the different varieties of capitalism that emerged in the 20th century, from the very egalitarian and well-resourced Nordic model to the very inegalitarian Anglo-Saxon group of countries (among which Ireland is  included) which are much more deferential to market forces. Behind these choices lie different values, write the authors: the first group is inspired by values of equality and solidarity whereas the second group follows more individualistic values and sees economic growth as an end in itself rather than a means to a better society for all. They conclude that “there is scope to vary Ireland’s model of economic and social development” but that this will require a much more active and engaged civil society committed to creating such an alternative).

Peadar Kirby