When Irish President Michael D. Higgins recently visited the UK on a state visit, and when Queen Elizabeth visited Ireland three years ago, there was an overload of media commentary on the “significance” and “symbolism” of every little gesture and nod, as if every word and image were elegant details on the icing of one big multilayered cake made out of history.
Listening on and off to the Local and European election results coverage yesterday from Ireland’s public broadcaster RTÉ, talk about “significance” and “symbolism” was fairly thin on the ground. Its historian of eminence John Bowman did, however, see fit to speak of a “terrible beauty” born of the fact that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two big opposing Civil War parties, might end up going into coalition after the 2016 elections, since 50% of voters were now choosing electoral options that had no experience of government.
But beyond that there seemed an anxious flavour to coverage, as if to demonstrate that things had not changed that utterly. Thus the stunning Sinn Féin performance, and the proliferation of ‘Independents’ were addressed, though not in that order, as evidence of a “protest vote”, of an urge to punish the government, and as typical of the difficulties encountered by a government “mid-term”, as if such difficulties were a universal law, part of the normal order of things. Never mind the West Wing: I was put in mind of The Demon Butcher of Royston Vasey, and his insistence that the town’s inhabitants would come back to his “special stuff” in the end.
Kathleen Lynch, the Labour TD, sought to place the dire results for the Government and the Labour Party in particular as part of a general trend in European politics towards ‘extremists’: the two examples she cited were UKIP and the Front National in France. But there is nothing in Sinn Féin’s success to suggest any growing vote along anti-immigrant, ethno-nationalist lines, as this analysis in the Irish Times shows. If anything, that vote would be located in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and like-minded ‘independents’. Rather, Sinn Féin’s campaign, and its discourse, corresponded quite closely to the description of populism outlined by one of its activists here:
It pits the people against an elite. It values the wisdom of ordinary women and men over the technical knowledge of the expert. Its politics is expansive and participative, not restricted to the world of professional politicians and their well-paid advisors.
The economic and social crisis that has gripped Ireland and the wider world since 2008 has shaken the status quo. Politics has been discredited. People are angry. Their trust has been broken. They no longer believe that the political system has the will or the capacity to respond to their legitimate demands. And they are right.
It is to these people that Sinn Féin speaks. We are trying to convince those most aggrieved by the failure of politics that their concerns can be met, but only if they come together in a truly national popular movement for social, economic and political change.
Simple phrases like “Stand Up for Ireland”, and “Put Ireland First”, which featured heavily in Sinn Féin’s campaign, couched within a broader appeal for social and economic equality and citizen rights, allow people to imagine that “Ireland” is a body of citizens under threat from antagonistic forces, whether in the Irish political establishment or Europe’s elite political institutions. Given Sinn Féin’s presence as a political force both north and south of the border, it is also an implicit challenge to the idea that “Ireland” merely encompasses the inhabitants of the southern state, as expressed by dominant political discourse in the south. As the election results show, it is a very potent approach at a time when the social toll of austerity policies is becoming more visible: in the withdrawal of medical cards from sick children, a housing crisis, the imposition of water charges that will prove unbearable for a great many people.
I don’t like geological metaphors much when it comes to politics but tremors, seismic, earthquake and so on do not seem entirely inappropriate to what has happened in Ireland in these elections. There are real cracks opening up now: the discredit of the established political parties; the utter humiliation of the Labour Party in particular and by extension the trade union bureaucracy that supports it; and a sense that the scare tactics presaging a return to the dark days of violence have reached their sell-by date.
‘The people that walked in darkness’ is more a religious expression than a political one. Nonetheless it does suggest something of Ireland’s predicament. To be immersed in the belief that the only political voice you have is the one you vote for every few years is to be immersed in a kind of darkness, a state of being shut off from a sense of what is possible. The browbeating that came in recent days, with being told that people died for your right to vote, also serves to convey the impression that speaking for yourself is a gross dishonour to our patriot dead.
These cracks -and developments outside Ireland, such as the potential prospect of Scottish independence- may allow for a little light to get in. But there is a tension between greater social mobilisation and dissent on the one hand, and the placing of trust in particular parties and individuals on the other. If a leftward shift in voting patterns has taken place, and the small left wing parties have done very well, that does not in itself lead to stronger mechanisms of accountability between the electorate and the parties, or greater political involvement on the part of ordinary people. There has been nothing in Ireland comparable to the 15M in Spain. This is hardly a ‘destituent moment’, then, and if people have voted against the political establishment, it is not on account of an accumulation of social movements and organisations with strong demands. That means that institutional political power, whether for Sinn Féin or a left coalition, does not necessarily translate into a greater measure of democratic rule. In the cold light of day, the prospects for such a thing are still weak. But that does not mean we can’t be optimistic.