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State of the Left - Ireland

Understanding Ireland’s splintered left

Eoin O'Malley - 13 November 2015

The historic dominance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is faltering, but Ireland’s heavily segmented left makes it difficult to envisage a viable governing coalition

Ireland was unusual in having a weak left. Arguments abound as to why the left was weak. These included the strength of the Catholic church, weak industrialisation, nationalism, the electoral system, to more particular explanations such as Labour’s decision to abstain from the 1918 general election. These explanations either beg the question (but why was the church so powerful?) or do not stand up to comparative analysis (but what about Greece/Spain etc?).

After economic boom and spectacular bust the left’s hand should have been strengthened. In Ireland like other countries saw the left move to the centre, accepting most of the precepts of the market and deregulation. The crash that followed could have led to people in Ireland to question the fundamentals of free market ideology, and might have seen the left grow. But in the first crisis election the Irish blamed the incumbents and put in a similar enough set of parties. There was no ideological change.

As we approach the 2016 general election the left has had an opportunity to politicise the response to the crisis. This has happened and the introduction of water charges mobilised many – tens of thousands marched, and there appears to be a significant boycott of the charges. But as the figure showing Irish left-right positions shows, ideology has not shifted.

We can see that the politicisation of the ‘fiscal consolidation’/ ‘austerity’ (delete as appropriate depending on your ideology) implemented by the Irish government has had an impact. The initial indiscriminate impact of the crisis meant that the richest and poorest cohorts in Ireland were equally likely to worry about the state of the economy (see table). Four years later there is a significant class distinction between these.

Satisfaction with the economy, by class (income), over time

Income decile/ Year



1st and 2nd decile ‘extremely dissatisfied’ (0-2 on 0-10 scale)



9th and 10th decile  ‘extremely dissatisfied’ (0-2 on 0-10 scale)



Has the left benefited from this? Yes and no. The Labour party, as usually happens to small parties in government, is being punished by its supporters. Its support is between seven to nine per cent (down from 19 at the election in 2011, but close to its historic average. But the rest of the left is doing well. In a country in which the centre-right parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael between them often commanded about 70 per cent of the vote, polling suggests this is down to about 45 per cent.

So the left has a majority? Well, sort of. The problem is that support for the parties other than Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is heavily splintered. There are now at least five parties competing that claim to be left of centre. These range from the Trotskyite Socialist Workers party and Socialist party (trading as People Before Profit and Anti-austerity Alliance respectively) to the decidedly moderate Social Democrats, and the Labour party. The biggest party on the left (polling at about 19 per cent) is Sinn Féin. We can probably also add the Greens to this list.

The Trotskyite parties are comical in the amount of splits they seem to contrive. Though there are seven TDs (MPs) elected under various banners, any attempts to unite usually give way to personal acrimony. It would be highly unlikely that these would support a government with more moderate left parties leading it.

The Social Democrats and the Greens might get a handful of seats between them, but neither is likely to be strong enough to make a significant breakthrough. The Labour party is running for a return of the outgoing government. It is in survival mode. It has bet everything on the improving economy, but it still seems voters are reluctant to give it credit for taking on the unpopular job of managing the downturn. It will need to get at least 15 seats if it can justify going back into government for the more pleasing job of managing the upturn.

As many regard Sinn Féin as a populist nationalist party, and given its violent past (and some allege present) it is likely there will be a conventio ad excludendum for the party. As happened the Italian Communist party, Sinn Féin could remain strong, but be deemed unviable as a coalition partner by other parties. Add to this that much of the other support is for independents – many of who are on the left, and most of who are anti-establishment – but some of whom are purely local TDs (MPs) whose support in the Dáil (lower house of parliament) can be bought with the promise of investment in their constituencies.

This all means that though we are entering the first election campaign in Irish history where there is a non-negligible chance of the left having a majority, the chances of a left-led government are slim.

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