It’s the tail end of a monumental year
and with colossal social upheaval both inside and outside the country Irish people are facing twelve months of being asked for political support from the many and varied parties that want to run the
country. Ireland is facing a presidential election in a few weeks, to be run alongside a referendum on decriminalising criticism of religious organisations. As well as this, next summer will see elections for both local government and European parliament. To make matters even busier, there’s a good likelihood of another referendum next year on recognition of stay-at-home-parents. As if all that wasn’t enough, at any moment (as we saw during a very turbulent 72 hours last year) we can see our entire Dail turned upside down by the collapse of the unstable government, meaning a general election can happen at almost any time. For anyone keeping count that’s four elections and three referendums, all inside a 12 month period.
For those that work in political spheres the prospect of the busiest year of activism in Irish history is both electrifying and terrifying, however the purpose of this piece is to help navigate the many options available to voters, starting at national party level. For full disclosure, I am a mid-level activist and local branch officer for the Social Democrats, however I will attempt to be as fair as possible in both criticism and analysis of all parties. Furthermore, I have chosen to include only parties that are currently represented within the Dail. Smaller parties that currently have no representation in the Dail such as Direct Democracy Ireland, the National party, Identity Ireland, Renua Ireland, the Workers party, and the newly-launched Irexit Freedom to Prosper party, will not be discussed hereafter.
The below list runs roughly from left to right in terms of economic and social policy. While there are some inconsistencies, for example Sinn Fein’s nationalism or Fine Gael’s support of repealing the eighth amendment, in broad terms the list grows more conservative and right-wing as the reader progresses.
SOLIDARITY / PEOPLE BEFORE PROFIT
Core principles : Socialism, protection of working class rights, nationalisation of industry, secularism
Criticisms : A tendency away from co-operation, to the degree of outright refusing ever to enter coalition with Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Labour. In practical terms this amounts to a refusal to enter government on any terms of compromise, asking their supporters to vote entirely for voice in opposition rather than the ability to actually write laws.
Key figures : Paul Murphy, Ruth Coppinger, Gino Kenny
The upheaval required to enact a truly socialist republic are far, far too extreme for the majority of Irish voters. The end of the water charges debate – a protest movement that Sol/PBP surfed to national significance – has left the appetite for protest parties significantly lower than in 2016.
Core principles : a united Ireland, increased spending funded by increased taxation
Criticisms : Aside from the obvious historical ties to criminality and the IRA, Sinn Fein have never governed here, despite their ongoing rise in popularity. Strong opposition voices don’t necessarily make for good governance, and however well they’ve performed as a thorn in the side of Fine Gael, they remain entirely untested
Key figures : Mary Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty, Eoin O Broinn
Challenges : Accepting that to be in power will require holding their nose and making a deal with either FF or FG, no matter how distasteful that may feel. I’d argue that the future the entire left wing of Ireland post-bailout hinges on their performance in government, if they get there, because if they make a dog’s dinner of it middle Ireland will dive right back for the parties mammy and daddy voted for.
Core principles : Protection of the environment, social equality, diversity
Criticisms : It’s been said of the greens that they’re a safe vote, as they never do any harm, however in their only tour of duty in cabinet (Alongside Fianna Fail in Cowen’s cabinet) the harm they failed to do was halting the bailout of Anglo. They failed, and we’re still paying. Like others in the centre and centre left, support is low in a time of extremist views.
Key figures Eamonn Ryan, Catherine Martin
Core principles: Accountability in public office, increased spending on public services, reduction of costs of living
Criticisms : Popular opinions have not yet translated into popular support, with the party still sharing the <10% poll space with the Greens, Labour, Sol/PBP and Renua. The phrase “labour lite” tends to be thrown at them a lot, with undeniably large numbers of Labour defectors in the wake of the 2016 coalition trading in their red badges for purple ones. As with other centrist parties, the current climate of polarised voters doesn’t lend itself well to the nuances that come from the middle ground.
Key figures : Roisin Shortall, Catherine Murphy , with a crop of young candidates (Gary Gannon,, Sarah Jane Hennelly, Niall O Tuathail, and Anne Marie McNally in particular) in the running for seats at the next general election.
Core principles : Social democracy, equality, collective bargaining for workers, support of trade unions
Criticisms : Historical willingness to provide the mudguard in coalition for significantly more conservative parties, leading to severe compromises when in government. The 2011-2016 coalition with Fine Gael saw some of the most drastic cuts to social protection in a generation, for which the vast majority of left wing voters have still not forgiven the party.
Key figures : Brendan Howlin, Alan Kelly, Pat Rabbitte
The challenge for Labour is regaining ground lost to Sinn Fein, the Soc Dems, and Fianna Fail. The centre has never been more crowded, and Labour – even more than Fianna Fail – are banking on national amnesia over their recent track record to have any hope of survival.
Core principles : Social conservatism, support of enterprise, moderate spending on public services, nationalism
Criticisms: More than any other party, Fianna Fail must take ownership of the culture of cronyism, corruption and clientelism that exists within Irish politics. Fixing potholes, passing envelopes, tanking the economy for three generations to protect friendly developers and banks, McQuaid’s constitution itself, these are all the historical failures of Fianna Fail. They’ve also been very slow to adopt female candidates and members, with the most phallocentric parliamentary lineup of any party, with just 5 women out of their 45 TDs.
Challenges: Convincing the Irish public that they’ve changed once again, despite the only member of Bertie’s cabinet still in the dail being their party leader. The recent referendum also didn’t go well for them, with the party grassroots broadly opposed to Michael Martin’s stance. As in the past, their inability to define themselves with any key differentiator – preferring the populist route of whatever is in fashion – makes it hard to stand on any given principle.
Key figures : Michael Martin, Michael McGrath, Eamonn O Cuiv, Dara Calleary
Core principles : Promotion of wealth generation, minimal taxation, minimal interference with profitability of business
Criticisms : Excessive fixation on the middle classes, insufficient compassion for those born outside of wealth, cultural snobbery and – so far – demonstrable failure of Leo Varadkar’s ministers to seriously impact the housing and health crises. There’s plenty of talk about “working families”, but little to no apology made for how many people in Ireland don’t fit their version of the term. While not quite as entangled in traditional corruption as Fianna Fail, as the party with the second most time spent in government they’ve never truly tackled the culture either.
Key figures : Leo Varadkar, Simon Harris, Eoghan Murphy, Regina Doherty, Simon Coveney
Challenges: Varadkar’s premiership of the party has been criticised for being light on substance and high on media spend, which rarely goes down too well at the ballot box. The confidence and supply agreement keeping FG in power comes with a gun to the head, FF at the trigger. This means the public will blame FG for the failures and still, despite all the spin, don’t love the Taoiseach for his victories. When you’re at the top, the only way to go is down, and as I’ve discussed previously the long game doesn’t read well for either of the conservative heavies in Ireland. Rather than trying to change the party to meet the voters, FG appear to be still trying to convince the voters to adapt to support the party even when it works against their own interests.
Jimi Kavanagh is the editor of Soapbox. You can get in touch with him here