Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael: Marching in step

We are living in difficult and dangerous times, with every chance that things may get worse. Global inflation is driving up the cost of living, the impact of which is felt most severely in working-class communities.

Against this backdrop of economic hardship there looms the spectre of war in Ukraine spreading beyond its present boundaries. Worryingly for people living in Ireland, the Republic is at present governed by a coalition wedded to free-market economics while simultaneously preparing its citizens for external military engagement.

Working together under a “confidence and supply” agreement since 2016 and embedded in coalition since 2020, there has now developed a de facto merger between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Though formerly it was a distinction rather than a difference, under the leadership of Micheál Martin even that minor divergence has disappeared. From the privatisation of Dublin buses to kowtowing to the Roman church in relation to the National Maternity Hospital, the two parties are marching in step.

It wasn’t always thus. In contrast to the downright reactionary Blueshirts, in its early years Dev’s party appeared to at least have some degree of empathy with the less well off. Fianna Fáil could never have been described as progressive, but with little competition from the hapless Labour Party it offered an alternative of sorts.

No longer, though. The party is committed to the most ruthless interpretation of neoliberalism. Look at its record on housing, health, or public transport—all crucial services and all floundering and hopelessly inadequate, thanks to dependence on the private sector. Micheál Martin’s party no longer even pretends to differ in policy from the right-wing Fine Gael.

Illustrating this was the junket shared last month by Taoiseach and Tánaiste as the pair strolled round the bright lights of the World Economic Forum in Davos, a festival of “red in tooth and claw” capitalism.

There is no prospect of the de facto merger dissolving or changing tack. The nasty pair are inescapably corralled together, because the political space vacated by Fianna Fáil is now filled by Sinn Féin. Fresh from its success in the recent Northern elections, Mary Lou McDonald and her colleagues are pressing home their advantage in the Dáil. Opinion polls have routinely demonstrated that Sinn Féin is now a permanent fixture in Irish parliamentary politics.

There is reason aplenty, though, to question how far Sinn Féin would be prepared to go in challenging capitalism if elected to office. Its commitment to the European Union makes it difficult to envisage the party bringing about a radical transfer of wealth to the working class, nor to overlook that its support for Irish neutrality would be severely tested on the issue of US military involvement in Shannon.

However, opinion polls notwithstanding, as a result of the incessant hostility to Sinn Féin emanating from the Irish establishment and its subservient mainstream media there is a real possibility that the party will not get the opportunity to exercise power but will continue to lead the parliamentary opposition

Whatever the outcome of the next general election, there is now an urgent need to recognise the challenges and indeed dangers approaching. We need to prepare for the coming storm; and, in view of the assessment above of the balance of power in Dáil Éireann, we are not in a good place to do so. What the working class need is the protection and support of a mass movement led by organised labour, the type of movement that successfully fought the anti-water-tax campaign, only this time with a broader agenda.

The coalition government and Irish establishment are well aware of the potential risk such a development would pose to the status quo. Faced with a potential threat to its position of privilege, the 26-County state’s establishment is quietly and discreetly putting in place counter-measures. On the one hand it is strengthening its capacity to control the population, and on the other hand it is preparing to entice the leadership of organised labour into another corporatist trap.

As if we haven’t enough coercive legislation, last month the minister for justice, Helen McEntee, announced that the Government had agreed to legislate for facial-recognition technology, a measure rightly condemned by, among others, Liam Herrick of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties as opening the door to mass surveillance by the state. Reassurances offered by government sources are undermined by comments made by the Garda commissioner, Drew Harris. Interviewed by RTE, he said this technology would be used in relation to matters of national security—the old catch-all to cover every critic of the state.

The ruling class intend thereafter to supplement such heavy-handed measures with an offer of negotiations with the trade union movement—in reality a crude attempt to neutralise organised labour, the one section of society capable of upsetting their plans. According to reports in the Irish Times, Micheál Martin has indicated a willingness to enter into discussions with union leaders.*

There is talk too of a new social partnership arrangement. From coverage in the same newspaper it is evident that prominent trade unionists find the suggestion agreeable and have welcomed the initiative.

It hardly needs repeating in Socialist Voice that in the past social partnership did not work out well for Ireland’s working people or for organised labour. Corporatist social partnerships invariably only ever assists capital. Business adheres to it only for so long as it finds it advantageous and abandons it without hesitation when it no longer suits its interests. Such was our experience with previous arrangements, and it would be no different now.

It has been said often enough in the pages of this paper that the trade union movement must be radical or it will become redundant. It is important to recognise the need to argue at every level possible for no compromise on a corporatist partnership and to work for a vibrant movement of organised labour, a movement capable, willing and able to challenge the reactionary forces of capital, epitomised and facilitated by the de facto party merger mentioned above.

As followers of Connolly and Larkin we have the inspiration and, equally important, the ability to do so. So let’s go!

*“Broader agreement for public pay talks raised in negotiations,” Irish Times, 21 May 2022.