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Ireland’s New Government Just Puts a Green Face on the Old Order

After losing to Sinn Féin in February’s general election, Ireland’s conservative parties have exploited the pandemic to regain their footing and strike a coalition deal with the Greens. The new government won’t deliver the change Irish society needs, but Ireland’s left-wing forces still have a real opening in the coming years.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin waves to the gathered media after being elected Taoiseach at the Convention Centre on June 27, 2020 in Dublin, Ireland. Charles McQuillan / Getty

Earlier this year, as the coronavirus pandemic escalated into its most lethal initial phase, the Irish Times published one of its quintessential “inside politics” puff pieces. The paper’s political editor, Pat Leahy, recounted the kind of banter that was circulating within the conservative Fine Gael party, principal trustee of Ireland’s caretaker government at the time:

Having practically abolished private medicine, Simon Harris wonders why [he] is not a hero for People Before Profit . . . his colleagues rib Leo Varadkar that he is now the leader of a more left-wing government than Jeremy Corbyn could have ever dreamed of.

Varadkar, the outgoing Taoiseach (prime minister), is as ardent a Thatcherite as you can find in Irish politics, so we can just picture the scenes of hilarity among Fine Gael’s inner circle as that particular gag was delivered.

That was on March 28, the day that major shutdown measures came into effect south of the Irish border. The Dáil, Ireland’s parliament, had passed emergency legislation for wage subsidies, a pandemic unemployment scheme, and the temporary incorporation of private hospitals into the public system.

The idea that such enforced “right-Keynesianism” was comparable to the Corbyn project in Britain, or had “abolished private medicine,” was always far-fetched. The very framing of it in those terms, however, is indicative of the makeover that Fine Gael has sought to engineer over the course of the pandemic, readily enabled by Ireland’s mainstream media. Its self-projected image is now that of a more compassionate and humane party, yet one still — unlike its opponents — sufficiently dispassionate to manage Irish capitalism in a responsible way.

The Jaws of Defeat

There’s a rather bitter irony to this. The confluence of a continuing leftward trend in Irish voting preferences — which was already in progress before the 2008 financial crash, but has accelerated since then — with a raft of pandemic-induced support measures has enabled Fine Gael to reposition itself and salvage something from a very poor election result in February. The party has effectively harnessed the coronavirus crisis to sidle into a third term in government, despite having received a decisive repudiation from voters. It has had invaluable assistance from the Irish Green Party, a vital prop for the new center-right coalition, whose own leader has described the program for government as a “left-wing document.”

Fine Gael swept into power back in 2011 with a 36 percent vote share and seventy-six seats in the Dáil, its largest ever parliamentary cohort. After the party had presided over brutal austerity and chronic crises in the housing and health care systems for nine years, it collapsed to 21 percent and thirty-five seats. Pundits had expected Fianna Fáil, the other center-right party, to capitalize on its rival’s misfortunes. While it did secure the largest number of seats, Fianna Fàil’s vote actually dropped from 24 percent to 22 percent.

Instead, the story of the election was the rise of the “adaptable” left-nationalist party Sinn Féin, which climbed from 13 percent to 25 percent to win the popular vote and disrupt the conservative duopoly. Their “robust center-left” manifesto resonated during a campaign in which the health and housing crises emerged as the top two priorities for voters. The various socialist formations — People Before Profit, Solidarity, RISE — were the main beneficiaries of Sinn Féin’s surplus vote transfers.

The soft-left Green Party also received a notable boost, albeit from an extremely low base after paying a heavy price for its role in government during the post-2008 recession. The Green performance was also less impressive than might have been expected after the party’s excellent results in last year’s local and European elections. Its predominantly middle-class, middle-of-the-road traditional core — environmentalist but pro-business — has been bolstered by an influx of members and voters from Ireland’s new generation of left-leaning movements for climate and socioeconomic justice. Overall, the theme of the election was the demand for change.

Bouncing Back

Five months and a global pandemic later, the formation of a government has finally been agreed upon. Its agenda won’t involve anything resembling systemic change, but rather a consolidation of the status quo with a superficial Green tint.

Sinn Féin was unable to put together a broad-left minority coalition in February and found itself frozen out with relative ease by the establishment parties. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will head the new administration, with the Greens supplying vital ballast. Even with the three parties put together, the government has a rather slender and precarious majority. To bolster its stability, it has also secured the ad hoc support of a substantial number of independents — at least for now — including some of the most right-wing, reactionary members of parliament.

Having conceded defeat in the election and stated its intention to return to the opposition benches and take stock, Fine Gael has now bounced back, with a commanding 37 percent of voter preferences according to a recent opinion poll. Leo Varadkar’s personal approval rating has risen from 30 percent to a remarkable 75 percent. The party and its front bench have benefited from a favorable media climate that has celebrated Varadkar’s “sure-footed leadership” during the pandemic, in contrast to that of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.

In the North Atlantic Anglosphere these days, merely steering clear of open eugenicist fantasies and conspiracy theories seems to be enough to garner acclaim. Even a politician as lightweight as Varadkar can be cast as a leader of substance, despite his own best efforts to trivialize both himself and the pandemic: the Fine Gael leader has made a habit of slipping film quotes into his televised addresses to the nation, from Lord of the Rings to Terminator 2 and Mean Girls.

The reality is that Varadkar’s caretaker government spent the crucial outbreak period in February and early March stressing the importance of liberal freedoms and economic activity — insisting that the pubs should stay open and Saint Patrick should have his day — before public pressure drove it into belated action to prioritize public health over business as usual.

With all the necessary disclaimers concerning the accuracy of data and the multiple variables feeding into it, the reality in Ireland patently doesn’t measure up to the media hype. Even this past month, as Fine Gael lifted restrictions earlier than planned and expedited the reopening of pubs, Ireland has still had the eleventh highest reported rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita worldwide — and a very similar level to that of Trump’s United States.

“The Old Way of Doing Things”

It’s not just the delayed response that is to blame, either. There have been major flaws in Varadkar’s handling of the pandemic, not least when it comes to health care workers and people in residential accommodation. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation recently produced figures suggesting that Ireland’s health workers had the world’s highest rate of COVID-19 infection. Those workers have faced systemic logistical and safety issues: nurses have been disciplined for wearing their own personal protective equipment, even though the authorities failed to supply such equipment or make it obligatory.

While the country’s health workers have been rightly celebrated for their extraordinary work during the pandemic, it is worth remembering that only last year, Fine Gael’s intransigence over poor pay and conditions for nurses forced them to go on strike. There has been little to suggest that symbolic gestures of appreciation will prepare the ground for any material improvement in pay or working conditions under the new government.

The mismanagement of nursing homes is an ongoing scandal. Although this has been an issue in most countries, the World Health Organization places Ireland at “the upper end of the spectrum” for nursing-home deaths around the world. Fine Gael’s open disregard for those in the “Direct Provision” system — Ireland’s archipelago of open “prisons for migrants” seeking asylum — has also underpinned an “appalling response” throughout the pandemic, as the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland has consistently pointed out (a particularly jarring one, too, against the global backdrop of anti-racist uprisings).

Fine Gael’s relapse into characteristic class prejudice against low-income and precarious workers has been another reminder of its true colors. Leo Varadkar argued that if someone had been on low pay before the pandemic, it was “not fair” that they might now be better off because of emergency support payments, and he went on to slash the support available for part-time workers accordingly. As for the supposed abolition of private medicine, this has merely involved the state paying extortionate rates for temporary usage to private hospitals owned by some of the most reprehensible elements of the Irish and transnational investor classes.

And yet the positive portrayals and perceptions of Fine Gael’s pandemic response have held sway. Thanks to that unwarranted boost to the party’s image, it was able to enter coalition talks from a position of considerable strength and leverage, despite having performed so badly in the election. In April, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil published a joint framework document, in which Ireland’s old guard claimed the mantle of change:

We know that there is no going back to the old way of doing things. Radical actions have been taken to protect as many people as possible, and new ways of doing things have been found in a time of crisis.

Greenwash

The program for government agreed upon between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Greens is no blueprint for “radical action.” While media reports have spoken of a “strongly Green-influenced programme for government,” presenting the Greens as the “big winner” from the negotiations, the deal is far less ambitious on climate change than such coverage suggests.

The Green Party has experienced its own version of the familiar realo-fundibattle for the soul” between a centrist, pragmatic wing in favor of coalition, and a more radical current that believes the party has to offer something bolder than a weak “greener business as usual” liberal compromise with conservative forces. With party members voting overwhelmingly to endorse the coalition deal, that battle has been decisively resolved in favor of the centrist wing grouped around party leader Eamon Ryan.

Ireland has consistently been one of the highest carbon emitters in Europe. A Fine Gael–led government signed up to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which requires at least 7.6 percent annual emissions cuts, with an onus on rich countries to strive for cuts closer to 10 percent. But Fine Gael itself targeted much lower reductions in its climate-action plans, in practice coming “nowhere near” even those less ambitious benchmarks.

The Greens made a 7 percent annual reduction their “red-line” issue in the talks. Media coverage has almost uniformly presented this as a hard-line, maximalist demand, rather than a figure that is slightly below the minimum requirement to which the state had already committed itself. Fine Gael proposed an even lower percentage: one of the party’s leading figures suggested that the Green Party could “forget its 7 percent carbon emission reduction demand if it decimates farming and rural Ireland.”

The fudge ultimately engineered to keep the Greens on board was a pledge to commit Ireland to 7 percent annual carbon reductions on average between now and 2030. This essentially backloads meaningful action until the second half of the decade, well after this government’s lifetime will have expired. Fine Gael has admitted as much, with Varadkar making it clear that “most of the reductions will happen in the second five years.”

Green leaders describe the agreement as “the best green deal in the history of the country” — a low bar, easily scaled, since it would have been hard to do much worse than before. But it is a speculative gamble on a future administration being willing to implement the kind of reductions that the party’s new coalition partners are not prepared to enact themselves.

Moreover, as dissenting Green representatives have noted, the 7 percent target, averaged over ten years, “is uncosted, has no timelines, yearly targets, carbon budget targets or sectoral targets.” It also “gives emissions from livestock in the agriculture sector different and preferential treatment” — a point that is crucial in the Irish context.

There are other elements of the deal that promise action on climate change, but much of that content simply reproduces a draft Climate Bill already published under the previous government. Some commitments — a major recalibration of transport budgets and infrastructure, the halting of particular fossil-fuel projects and explorations — would, though, represent progress if delivered (although Fine Gael has already started to hint that some of them won’t be).

Overall, however, the document’s ambiguity and lack of urgency make a mockery of its appropriation of the “Green New Deal” tag as the heading for its environmental section. Its incrementalist thrust is entirely deaf to the eco-socialist calls for “system change, not climate change” that have become commonplace in recent years. Ireland’s Extinction Rebellion group described the program as “unambitious and unacceptable.” Despite the appearance of progress, there is reason to fear that Ireland’s contribution to climate breakdown will deepen rather than diminish under this government.

The Social Crisis

Naturally, guardians of the status quo have denounced such arguments, insisting that environmentalists should accept the crumbs on offer. The Irish Times has run op-ed after op-ed in support of the new government, urging Green members to support the deal and thereby avoid a “political crisis.” The newspaper has also published surveys that appear designed to give the impression that voters don’t care about climate change.

Looking beyond environmental issues, from any left-wing perspective, the program makes for distressing reading on the questions that defined the general election. Despite its use of the term, it is oblivious to the whole premise of the “Green New Deal” concept: the idea that tackling systemic inequality — in employment, housing, health and care, land use and tax structures — is itself integral to environmental justice. There is no meaningful discussion of workers’ rights, nor of creating green public-sector jobs on a large scale.

When it comes to health, there are virtually no concrete plans. The pretense that we will see “fairer” and even “universal” access to health care is belied by a commitment to protect the private sector and retain access to private health services. The existing two-tier system will continue to segregate health care according to ability to pay. The program also suggests there will be more “partnership” deals that involve the state paying private hospitals — a far cry from the window to nationalization that the pandemic might otherwise have opened.

At a time when the scale of the Irish housing crisis requires the largest public-housing construction scheme in generations, the new government’s agenda is painfully inadequate. Rents in Dublin have more than doubled since 2010, while wages have risen only marginally. Across the country, tens of thousands of families are stuck on long-term waiting lists for public housing. Sinn Féin’s public-housing plan — a key part of its electoral appeal — was to build one hundred thousand new homes, and even Fine Gael promised sixty thousand in their manifesto. Yet the coalition has only pledged to “increase the social housing stock” by fifty thousand over the next five years. That happens to be the figure already set out in the National Development Plan.

Moreover, the language of the program for government suggests that private developers may provide up to twenty-five thousand of these new homes, with some in the form of leases on existing housing rather than new builds. Green negotiators admitted that they failed to secure agreement on any targets for public housing on public land. Nor could they manage to obtain any commitments that would cap developer profits or limit transfers of public land to private interests, still less any rent-control model or meaningful eviction ban.

The overarching thrust of the policy reflects the conviction that housing should overwhelmingly be delivered by private enterprise through the market. That means Ireland’s housing and homelessness crises will only get worse.

Austerity by Another Name

In terms of political economy, there are promises of a stimulus, amid general talk in Europe that this crisis will not see the austerity of the last one reproduced. But the new government will maintain Ireland’s status as a high-tech, low-tax — and, in effect, tax-avoidance — outpost for multinational capital, where a fairly small number of people on high salaries have driven up the cost of living in what remains, for most workers, a low-wage economy.

The program appears staunchly loyal to this FDI-led “Leprechaun Economics” growth model, promising to “support the role that venture capital can play in driving growth.” It states that there will be no increase to Ireland’s notoriously low corporation tax rate, nor to progressive income tax, and makes no mention of broadening the tax base through other obvious sources — such as taxes on wealth, aviation, or data centers. The document offers “large tax breaks to middle and high-income earners,” as one of the Green negotiators points out, along with a regressive carbon tax policy that “protects higher earners” and will load the burden disproportionately on the working class.

How can this be reconciled with the ambitious — but suspiciously vague — plans for public-investment and climate-action stimulus packages? Instead of redistributing wealth, the state plans to defer the burden of payment by borrowing on international bond markets at the low rates currently available, for the next two years at least. Beyond that point, however, rates may not be as favorable as they are today.

By 2022, the impact of the coronavirus recession and the re-tightening of EU fiscal rules may really have started to bite. The imprint of Fine Gael’s fiscal thinking is evident in repeated references to annual deficit cuts and balanced budgets. Here, the specter of austerity — by that or any other name — looms large, however much Eamon Ryan or the Irish Times doth protest.

Indeed, the Green Party’s own finance spokesperson, Neasa Hourigan, who ended up voting against the deal, warned that the new coalition might prove to be “the most fiscally conservative government in a generation.” The mood music from official bodies backs up Hourigan’s analysis. After granting an initial honeymoon period for emergency state intervention to mitigate the pandemic, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council (IFAC) has started preparing the ground for “tough choices” ahead.

The Irish government established the IFAC during the last recession as a condition of the EU–ECB–IMF bailout, supposedly with a mandate to provide impartial advice, but in practice with a strong bias toward the neoliberal agenda. Its recent report suggests that the government’s debt burden “could be near record highs” by the end of 2021. According to the council, this will impose the need for “a prudent fiscal policy” and substantial “fiscal adjustments” from 2022 onward.

There is no objective necessity for such cuts, of course, any more than there was after 2008. But this is precisely the kind of macroeconomic advice that Fine Gael and Fianna Fàil are likely to heed. Since they have committed to no increases in income or corporation tax, there is a very real threat to existing levels of public provision coming down the line.

Cracks of Light

All the same, there are cracks of political opportunity likely to arise from the coalescence of Ireland’s two establishment parties, a generational dynamic that sees an ever-growing shift to the left among younger voters, and the strong influence of social movements over the past decade.

Fianna Fáil’s veteran leader, Micheál Martin, will now finally get his chance to head a government, going first in a sequential Taoiseach arrangement with Leo Varadkar, at a time when Fianna Fáil’s star seems to be irreversibly on the wane. As far back as 1998, Martin attracted attention as “the next Taoiseach” when Fianna Fáil was still riding high as one of Europe’s most successful vote-winning machines. More than two decades later, the party is barely clinging on to its position as Ireland’s third most popular force, on just 14 percent in the polls, and Martin may well be the last Fianna Fáil Taoiseach for a long time.

Fianna Fàil no longer appears able to maintain the broad, cross-class social base that underpinned its long success. Sinn Féin has decisively captured its urban, working-class vote; on the opposite flank, the party is not ideologically staunch enough to dislodge Fine Gael as the voice of big business and large agriculture, landlords, and the upper middle classes. The political landscape is full of negative tidings for Fianna Fáil: there is a strong sense that twenty-first-century Ireland will only have room for one large center-right party, as it completes the shift from factional divisions rooted in the partition of the island and the Irish Civil War to a more conventional left-right cleavage.

The same vista offers a real opening for the Left, though that opportunity is complicated by its own fragmentations, and by the particular space that Sinn Féin occupies. Although Sinn Féin describes itself as “a party of the left — progressive and socialist,” and certainly contains many socialists in its ranks, it is not, in reality, a socialist party. Whenever there have been immediate choices to make, the party has given priority to the reunification of Ireland — “the national question” — over social equality and economic redistribution. The balance of the party’s left-nationalist ideological configuration tilts toward nationalism — of an anti-imperialist and internationalist stripe, but it’s nationalism nonetheless.

Sinn Féin’s readiness to park its socialist leanings as the price of power has been evident in its governing role in Northern Ireland (although that has played out within the constitutional limits of the British state and a mandatory coalition with Unionist parties). It has veered into explicitly neoliberal territory on questions of public-private partnerships, corporation tax, and welfare “reform.” Much will depend on the ability of prominent socialist voices within the party such as Eoin Ó Broin to push it in a different direction south of the border over the medium term.

A Generation in Movement

Sinn Féin’s relationship with social movements also casts doubt on its ideological credentials. In recent years, many of the most progressive changes in the Irish state have been the result of grassroots politicization from below. There have been major popular mobilizations to secure marriage equality and abortion rights, to stave off commodification and privatization in Ireland’s water wars, and to defend protest rights.

During the pandemic, as Laurence Cox has written, social movements have once again been central in “pushing the state to take action at all — and have then had to push again to get it to act in ways that take social realities other than those of the wealthy, powerful and culturally privileged into account.” In the wake of Black Lives Matter, self-organized (and anti-capitalist) groups like the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland and Migrants and Ethnic-minorities for Reproductive Justice have long been doing the hard work of movement-building and are now having a significant impact on political and cultural consciousness.

Social movements will have a crucial role to play in the struggles of post-pandemic Ireland — from housing justice, climate action, and public ownership of water to anti-racism, abolition of Direct Provision, and Palestine solidarity — both within and beyond parliamentary politics. And yet Sinn Féin’s response to this generational wave has too often been “evasive and equivocal” — frequently waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before committing support.

By contrast, the smaller radical-left groups have typically supported these working-class, feminist, and anti-racist movements for social change on principle, before it becomes expedient to do so. Ireland’s conservative politicians disparage their commitment to such causes as “extremist.” Leo Varadkar recently showed how far removed he is from the reality of life for asylum-seekers by defending Direct Provision as a good “service” and digressing into horseshoe-theory territory, telling People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett: “The far right and the far left aren’t very different to me.” Lest we forget, it was Fine Gael’s MEPs who recently voted with the far right to block migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

The readiness of the Greens and Fianna Fáil to capitulate to Fine Gael on long-standing promises to make progress toward an import ban on Israeli settlement goods does not inspire trust in the new government. It is also a reminder to social movements of the pitfalls inherent in dependence on political parties — progressive or otherwise — as a channel for radical initiatives. Sinn Féin will have work to do to prove itself different in this regard.

When all of Ireland was still ruled by the British Empire, James Connolly famously warned that there was no point raising the green flag of a new Irish national state unless you set about creating a socialist republic at the same time. Sinn Féin would do well to remember that counsel when their day comes south of the border. In the meantime, little is certain amid the tumult of “these uncertain times.” But if Ireland’s socialists can navigate the “rearguard and ugly” battles of the coronavirus conjuncture, with political education expanded and social movements strengthened, there is scope for the country’s leftward trends to continue and consolidate.