Michael Taft: Towards The Fourth Disruption


From top: Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald voting last Saturday; Michael Taft

It was a three-way race after all. As of the time of writing there are still a number of seats to be filled but we have the popular vote.

Not only has there been a substantial increase in support for progressive parties; this bloc is far ahead of the individual conservative parties. Even when we combine the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael vote, the contest is pretty even.

If the progressive vote has increased substantially, it is largely due to Sinn Fein’s performance. They are now the dominant party in the progressive bloc.

In 2016, Sinn Fein took less than 50 percent of the total progressive vote. Today, they have nearly 60 percent. Social democracy has seen its influence diminished, while the radical parties are also falling back. The Greens are now challenging for second place.

Many of the seats of the non-Sinn Fein progressive parties are potentially on loan. Having adopted an understandably cautious candidate policy, in any subsequent election Sinn Fein will field two candidates if their support holds up in the polls.

It won’t be just the high-profile transfer-beneficiary TDs who will be at risk (e.g. Dublin South West, Dublin South Central); thousands of Sinn Fein surplus votes in other constituencies helped progressive candidates. Sinn Fein could soon have a firmer grasp on the progressive vote.

The Sinn Fein vote has been described as a ‘surge’. Could we be seeing a ‘what-goes-up-must-come-down’ once-off phenomenon? We have seen party surges in the past.

In 1948, Clann na Poblachta took 13 percent of the vote two years after being formed. They fell to 4 percent in the next election and limped along until the 1965 election – the last time they elected a TD.

In similar fashion, the Progressive Democrats took 12 percent in their first outing in 1987 but fell back to 5 percent in the next election and lasted until its dissolution in late 2008 (a little historical note: that ol’ immigrant-basher, Noel Grealish, was the PDs’ last leader).

Labour experienced two surges – the 1992 ‘Spring Tide’ and the 2011 ‘Gilmore Gale’. These surges didn’t last. In 1997, Labour lost half its votes and seats. In 2016, the party went into meltdown. Both occurred after being in coalition.

Is this Sinn Fein’s fate? Doubtful.

Unlike the examples above, where the surge came off a first election, or after a period of stagnation, Sinn Fein grew steadily – from 7 percent in 2007, to 10 percent in 2011, to 14 percent in 2016 and now: 24 percent. While continuous growth is not guaranteed, they have built a decent foundation.

It is more difficult to predict the evolution of Irish politics. This is the third disruptive election in a row. Some will refer to 2020 as a seismic political shift, but it is just the latest twist in a volatile political landscape that started back in 2008/09.

First disruption:

During the banking crisis Fianna Fail undid its historical broad-class alliance by siding with finance capital against its working class base. This resulted in their collapse in 2011 and the rise of the Labour Party. However, instead of becoming the main opposition for the first time since the 1920s, Labour made the fateful decision to enter government and continue implementing Fianna Fail’s austerity programme.

Second disruption:

In 2016 we saw Labour’s meltdown and the fragmentation of the progressive vote. But most important was the first formal governmental arrangement between a revived Fianna Fail and a chastened Fine Gael.

Third disruption:

Now we have the rise of Sinn Fein, aided by an unpopular confidence and supply government where the historically distinct brands of the conservative parties dissolved to the point that people couldn’t detect any difference between the two.

So will this volatility continue or will we settle into a lengthy period of three party electoral competition? Much may depend on what happens next.

Sinn Fein has rightly begun with an attempt to construct a progressive-led government. Even if it is going through the motions (there are probably not enough seats to achieve this – yet), the mere exercise shows that progressive politics has arrived and points to future probabilities. Before a political force comes to power it must act like it has power.

After that, it gets hazy. Will Fianna Fail open up to a Sinn Fein coalition? What compromises will have to be made on both sides – and will such compromises be acceptable to the respective parties’ bases?

Or will the two conservative parties patch up another governmental arrangement? If none of this works, are we looking into a summer election? And what would happen then? Speculation time.

But other progressive parties face their own challenges. The Greens’ highly successful election shouldn’t blind us to the fact that climate chaos did not play a significant role in the campaign.

They may enter government, but without popular demands for climate justice policies they may struggle to convince their coalition partners of the need for significant policy departures, thus undermining their rationale for being in government.

With Labour and Social Democrats on the same number of seats, there will be calls for the two to merge. However, this avoids the more fundamental question: what can social democracy offer that Sinn Fein can’t?

For all the talk of ‘radical’ policies from housing, health, education and pensions, to workers’ right and more – Sinn Fein’s manifesto is not a whole lot different from what a robust centre-left party would offer, with the possible exception of tax-base-eroding proposals.

Without addressing that question, you can merge parties, change their names and logos, but the fundamental problem will remain.

The radical parties may be relieved to have escaped a seat-drubbing, especially after poor elections last year. However, they, too, have challenges.

Yes, people want change – but not necessarily socio-economic regime change. At 2.6 percent of the vote and, in many constituencies, reliant on Sinn Fein surpluses, how can these parties keep their ideological edge while making themselves relevant to a larger section of the electorate?

And the biggest question of all is whether the parties that make up the progressive bloc will commit to cooperation and a new alignment which can eventually replace the weakening hold that the conservative parties have over government.

It may well be that answering this question in the affirmative will help the individual parties to meet their individual challenges.

And lead to the fourth disruption.

Michael Taft is a researcher for SIPTU and author of the political economy blog, Notes on the Front. His column appears here every Tuesday.


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11 thoughts on “Michael Taft: Towards The Fourth Disruption

  1. curmudgeon

    Mr Taft could you please explain SIPTU’s rationale for encouraging Child Care Workers protest an outgoing government, instead of their employers (that are allegedly underpaying them) please.

  2. Truth in the News

    If Labour kept out of the 2011 coalition they would be in the position Sinn Fein is
    now in today, what’s worse they way the likes of Joan Burton and Alan Kelly implemented
    Fine Gael austerity programme inherited from Fianna Fail has completely destroyed
    them……the Shinners are here to stay and the reason for their success, is that a
    large section of the electorate have now realised that the so called economic prudence
    implemented by Fine Gael + Labour and then later by FG + FF was actually the use
    of financial resources to bale out Banks instead of applying it to housing, health and
    social support and inclusion, instead was Water Tax, Property Tax, USC and anything
    else that could be cooked up……where was SIPTU when the Water Tax Campaign
    was afoot …….was there a sign supporting it displayed on high from Liberty Hall.

    1. Cian

      Do you not remember what happened between 2007 and 2009?

      In 2007 (just before the crash) the Irish tax receipts (i.e. total government earning) was €47.3bn. Total voted expenditure (the budget stuff the Dáil controls) was €44.7bn.

      By 2009 (two years later) the tax receipts had plunged to €33.0bn while expenditure had risen to €47bn.

      Tax revenue had dropped by €14 billion and we were spending an extra 2bn (mostly on Social Welfare). In 2009 we had to borrow €16bn to pay for the day-to-day running the country! (note: this isn’t money to bail out the banks, but to pay old age pensions and dole and teachers and doctors and nurses). That was on top of extra €8bn needed in 2008 to run the country.

      Ireland was a basket-case and nobody would lend us any more money so in 2010 the IMF came in to bail us out.

      “Austerity” is now a dirty word in Ireland but it is what Ireland had to do to balance the books: increase taxes and reduce spending.


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