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Getting Your Irish Up

As Ireland heads out to the polling booths today to vote in a general election, the hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916—the doomed rebellion that kicked off the war for Irish independence from England—looms, framing the struggle for economic democracy against centuries of battles for freedom, equality, and unity.

This year, as the party associated with Ireland’s sometimes-armed resistance to English rule, Sinn Féin, draws unprecedented support, Irish identity and independence are once again central. “2016 is a time to celebrate our identity, to commemorate our past and to deliver on the promise of the Proclamation,” wrote a Sinn Féin spokesperson. “It is a time for big ideas. The patriots of 1916 believed that a better Ireland is possible. We also believe that.”

Austerity—the barrage of public-sector cuts and tax hikes imposed in post-economic crisis Europe in the name of fiscal discipline—is still very much part of the political scene in the Republic of Ireland. Today’s vote will decide if the coalition that imposed it, and saw poverty and homelessness spike as a result, will retain its hold on power. Challenging that coalition government, composed of center-right Fine Gael and (Irish) Labour is Fianna Fáil, which lost power in 2011, after long dominating Irish politics, when it implemented the biggest bank bailout in Europe and two surprising contenders: Sinn Féin, the 111-year-old Irish independence party carving out new space for itself on Ireland’s left; and an alliance of smaller left parties and independent left TDs (members of Irish parliament’s lower house, the Dáil Éireann), grouped (with Sinn Féin’s support) under the anti-austerity banner of “Right2Change.” This week, the three major parties together are polling at just 57 percent.

Independent leftist TD Clare Daly says, “The development of small parties, independents, and others has been striking, with successive opinion polls putting the vote for that category at about 25 percent of the population.” With the movement of Labour into coalition with Fine Gael, she says, none of the establishment parties reflects the anger that exists within the country at the direction it has taken.

The bottom has fallen out of Labour, whose working-class base, having taken the brunt of austerity, has been scooped up in many places by Sinn Féin and the independent left and smaller parties. Labour finds itself in a similar position to England’s Liberal Democrats, taking a beating for being in coalition with a more conservative party; while the Tories and Fine Gael retain their conservative bases, the further-left voters for the Lib Dems and Labour feel betrayed. Joan Burton, Labour’s leader and Tanaiste (deputy prime minister), is battling two challengers to her left just to keep her seat.

Several unions have also broken away from the Labour party to endorse the Right2Change platform and the 106 candidates who’ve signed on to it. That platform incorporates the right to decent work, health care, housing, debt justice (which includes an EU financial transaction tax), education, equality (including abortion rights), a pledge to fight climate change and bad trade policies, and, particularly relevant in this moment, the right to water.

In the American media’s slipshod coverage of the way the collapse of the banks struck the rest of the planet, somewhere between the inspirational tales of Iceland’s “pots and pans revolution” and the tragedy that is Greece, the story of Ireland’s economic crisis got lost.

Because Ireland “behaved,” the ECB kept the money flowing.

Ireland was one of the earliest countries to feel the pain of the financial crisis, as a massive construction bubble financed through borrowing, much of it from abroad, burst, leaving Ireland’s biggest banks in danger of collapse. As economist J. W. Mason notes, prior to that the Irish government actually carried very little public debt and ran budget surpluses, but when the banks were in trouble, the government made the choice, out of fear and in the sway of a there-is-no-alternative ideology, to give the banks “an open-ended, blanket guarantee” of all their liabilities. This bailout was far, far more than any other country paid to rescue its banks—as Mandy La Combre of Mandate Trade Union in Ireland says, “Ireland has less than one percent of the population of the EU but was forced to take 42 percent of European banking debt, €9,000 for every man, woman, and child in Ireland which the nation is not scheduled to repay until 2053.” More than in nearly any other country, cuts to wages and services for Irish working people went directly to the banks that caused the crisis.

The Fianna Fáil government at the time was forced to go to the European Central Bank for support and, as it did elsewhere, the ECB made help contingent on adopting austerity and labor market reforms, and guaranteeing that the banks’ bondholders would not have to pay. Formal austerity created a severe recession, and average wages fell around 10 percent before Fianna Fáil was pushed out of power. 

But once Fine Gael and Labour took over, they willingly, if not enthusiastically, enforced austerity, slashing child benefits, funds for people with disabilities, and public-sector jobs, and raising the pension age. As in so many places, care workers (primarily women) took the brunt of the cuts, and child poverty rose dramatically. Emigration—some 300,000 leaving from 2009 to 2013 out of an already small population of under five million across the Republic—and homelessness brought up unpleasant echoes of the nineteenth-century famine. And all the while, as a Sinn Féin spokesperson noted, “250 individuals saw their combined wealth increase by 16 percent to €72 billion [in] twelve months.”

This, in the eyes of the political establishment and the economic orthodoxy, is what constitutes a success story. The country did not have the kinds of uprisings that marked Greece and Spain, nor did it see the rise of a new left party like Syriza or Podemos. Because it “behaved,” the ECB kept the money flowing. Growth is back up, even though surely that is partly due to the companies, like Apple and Google, that continue to use Ireland as something of a tax haven. Ireland left its official austerity program behind at the end of 2013. Although even the IMF review suggested the situation was badly handled, the story being told by the government leading up to today’s election is that things are good, don’t screw them up now.

As in the United States, where the Flint crisis has drawn attention to the connections between crisis-induced budget-slashing, poverty, and lack of access to fresh water, water in Ireland has become a focal point for resistance. It began in 2014 when, despite austerity’s technical end, the government moved to institute water fees for the first time. “The Right2Water campaign involved hundreds of thousands of people in political and protest activity like never before,” Clare Daly says. “It’s hard to know why it was a breaking point. Years of austerity. Probably the wettest country in the world with water falling everywhere and the appalling manner in which Irish Water was set up, with huge salaries and consultant fees, at a time when the water network had been starved of funds and no infrastructural upgrade had taken place.”

“For all the poverty in Ireland the nation is alone in the OECD in having zero water poverty through paying for water and sanitation through progressive general [taxation] making it free at the point of use,” says Mandy La Combre. “For a nation that effectively bailed out the European banking system, the commodification and attempted privatization of our water was a step too far.” The growing body of resistance breathed life into a labor movement left floundering after the recession, and major unions including Unite and La Combre’s Mandate joined the fight.

Abortion rights in Catholic Ireland are another major issue in this election, on the heels of the successful marriage equality referendum (a more hopeful story that, unlike the ravages of austerity, was plentifully covered by the U.S. press, just a month before the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled on the issue here). The Repeal the 8th Amendment campaign is demanding a similar referendum that would overturn the constitutional ban on all abortion. La Combre, who is part of the Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the 8th, explains that for union activists, Ireland’s extreme abortion ban is a human rights and equality issue—since Irish women are forced to travel abroad for abortion access, the wealthy can get abortions while the 50 percent of working women in the country who earn €20,000 or less could spend 10 percent of their income to end an unwanted pregnancy. Opinion polls, she notes, consistently show that a large majority are in favor of repeal (64 percent in the latest Irish Times poll).

Conspicuously, despite the external imposition of austerity and the blatantly undemocratic actions of the European institutions, most notably in their strong-arming of Greece, even Sinn Féin argues that “although we believe it needs radical reforms, Ireland’s place, north and south, remains within the EU.” Clare Daly notes that there is some suspicion of the European Union that has shown itself in votes against treaties, and that many do see the EU as a facilitator of big business rather than the wishes of the people. There would, she suspects, be a significant minority who would vote to leave if a referendum were held.

This underlines the fact that Sinn Féin (like the SNP in Scotland), despite some fear-mongering from their opponents, is quite different from the kinds of right-wing, anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic movements that have arisen in Greece and England. The collapse of the center has led to the rise in popularity of progressive nationalist parties—though Sinn Féin has to contend with its historic connection with the IRA, its rise in the Republic of Ireland has more to do with its outsider position and left anti-austerity politics than simple nationalism.

Sinn Féin is well positioned to argue against both sides of the existing government’s argument that austerity was imposed by someone else, but that the recovery is all their doing. On the one hand, its history of battling for independence makes criticizing the EU’s treatment of Ireland seem natural, while on the other, its party platform takes on the inequality that surged under the coalition, calling for national health care, repeal of the water fees, job creation, and taxing the rich. (A marked contrast with the current rulers: Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach, or prime minister, last week made a comment about “whingers” that hit a sour note for the many people still struggling despite economic growth.) Sinn Féin’s leader, Gerry Adams, whose voice was once banned on television in both Ireland and England, now communicates with a larger than could be expected public via Twitter, where he mixes political commentary with charmingly bizarre messages, selfies, and photos of rubber duckies and cute animals. Despite the new cuddliness of Adams’s image, though, his party has had a hard time shaking off its record of armed struggle to become the clear anti-austerity standard-bearer.

“This is the first time Sinn Féin have had a chance of entering government, but single-party government in Ireland seems impossible,” says La Combre. Right2Change represents an opportunity to elect more progressive TDs and perhaps create a coalition with Sinn Féin, which would be the first left-leaning government since Irish independence. “Whether this will happen in this election after just one and a half years of building is unlikely,” La Combre says. “But this is certain: fundamental change is happening in Irish politics.” 

As the Irish reflect on past rebellions, this election takes on additional meaning. And as they head to the polling stations, it’s hard to guess what the result might be. In the European post-crash narrative of self-denial, if the treatment of Greece was the stick, the demonstration of just how far the European institutions would go to tamp down rebellion, Ireland’s treatment was the carrot, the money kept flowing to assure “recovery,” allowing the government to declare victory. And yet the polls demonstrate that the Irish people are rebelling anyway: this weekend, at least 20,000 people rallied in Dublin under the Right2Change banner to argue for an end to austerity. The country’s history of willingness to rebel without certainty or even hope of success stands well with this particular political moment.