2016 General Election Reflections

Donegal x1

Five Key Points from the Election

1) A Right Decline

Firstly many commentators have spoken about the end of civil war politics, the decline of the combined Fine Gael and Fianna Fail vote. This is hugely important as a historic idea, the bedrock of the state, the rotation of two and a half party system, but I don’t think it is that useful an analysis for what voting, beliefs and organising potential are in Ireland. The explicit right being kicked by right populism seems a better explanation for what happened on February 26th 2016. The explicit and open right, Renua and Fine Gael took a beating. Renua, the PD reincarnate and closer to the US Republicans with their three strike crime rule and flat tax proposal were eliminated despite a large effort to promote and build them through the media. It is hard to know what that means, did Renua go too far with their message? Where they just poorly organised? Is Fine Geal, simply, a safer beat for the right and right wing voters in a time of increasingly threat from the rabble below them?

Fine Gael also took a serious hit loosing 10.4% of their vote. They lost a rake of seats with that and could of lost more. Criticisms came in from within their own party on the ‘keep the recovery going narrative’. This was an arrogant and brazen politics. It fitted a very narrow class position, appealing predominantly to Dublin based upper classes, the middle class working in multinationals in Dublin and prosperous parts of Munster in particular  with export orientated industry. It did not reach many other groups. Their vote did not collapse in any one part of the country so overall it seems to be a general vote decline, so this analysis is fuzzy at best.

Total Right Seats 50

Major questions for the right will be how they consolidate electorally post-election and what will be type of tactics and strategy they will take towards dissent of any kind. Electorally will the target be sustained pressure on the populist right to join the fold? Will they focus on the politics of consensus to go with this? Or will they go on the offensive, attack on the populist right, attack on the left or a more direct attack on the movements and communities driving a challenge to their authority?

2) The rise of Right Populism

“Messianic times, when the an old order breaks without the new order having yet taken shape are necessarily out of joint. They are propitious to rumors, wonders and upsurges. Propitious also to charlatans, quacks, and potions of illusions”.

On the right then where did the votes go? Right wing populism of various hues seems to have taken from Fine Gael and the explicit right of Renua. Fianna Fail ran a dual strategy, responsible leadership and popular policy positions, abolish Irish water, more housing, support for rural Ireland. This was classic Fianna Fail; they tried to appeal across class lines and tried to create a broad base, they tried to be all things to all people, again. Their message seemed to play on a classic right populism: I am against the establishment but responsible, unlike the mad left, I am fair but not going to take your stuff like them mad socialists. It seemed to half work. They gained 6.9% a recovery to 24.3% of the vote, close to piping Fine Gael for top spot. Despite this they are far away from recovering to their pre-crash levels.

The rest of the right populists are generally not given enough credit for the sophistication of their machines. The Independent Alliance has management to pull together a significant set of right independents with standing behind the ‘Maverick’ figure of Shane Ross. A lad who quibs about bankers and corruption but is an investment banker himself topped the polls in his south Dublin heartland as a ‘straight talker’ and a guy who gets the system and knows what’s wrong with it. He is clearly also an intelligent organiser to have pulled together 6 TD seats, including a number of new seats, despite the alliance itself being still loose with no wipe etc. The other major block of the populist right sits around localist personalities. The Healy Raes in Kerry throw us a mix of social conservativism with a localism which takes the outcome of austerity: poor local services, cuts, and depressed industry and shifts the blame for this to the establishment in Dublin and rural Ireland not getting its fair share rather than the class and systemic nature of these symptoms. Lowry is another fine example of this right wing populism, he added to his vote over the weekend as he was increasingly attacked in the media, because of his ability to stake a debate on Lowry as Rural V Dublin Centric Ireland. What is under estimated by most of the liberal commentators and many on the left is that localist right populism in Ireland is not based on stupidity. It is based on strong rural networks, electoral machines, sophisticated analysis of power in their areas and a clientilism that operates to protect and alleviate the worse impacts of austerity on communities. This is a manipulative power, but an effective power none the less.

One independent for example in Longford-Westmeath spent 7 straight days out building and strengthening flood defences in Athlone. That is something any good socialist would be expected to do but while moving the organising on the group to collective action and bringing in a dose of systematic analysis of why the floods happened and who is affected, a critique of capitalism.

Total Populist Right Seats

  • Fianna Fail 44
  • Independent Alliance 6
  • Independents 11
  • Total 61

Will Fianna Fail play a cat and mouse game with Fine Gael for as long as possible. A minority Government or Grand Coalition. How will the politics of stability face off against consensus and against division within the ruling class? What will right independents do and what is there next step beyond the pale of their local electoral power bases?

3) The cementing of a small liberal bloc in Irish Society

A small liberal block has cemented in Irish society at this election. This has three standard bearers, the right wing labour party who have abandoned and been abandoned by their working class base and have held onto a few leafy suburbs, the centrist liberal Social Democrats who retained their three seats, coming close to taking a fourth in Dublin Central and the Greens who returned 2 seats, leader Eamon Ryan and a second seat in the Museli belt of South Dublin.

Within this clearly a small vote, their focus on consensus the loose concepts of fairness and equality combines with a politics of no red lines issues, and quite honestly no backbone. This did not seem to be enough for many working class and power communities but appealed to a concentrated core in around Dublin and the South East of Ireland.


  • Labour 7
  • Social Democrats 3
  • Greens 2
  • Independent Katerine Zappone 1
  • Total 13

4) Sinn Fein: One foot on both sides of the line

Sinn Fein are always controversial to discuss. Are they or aren’t they on the left? Which way are they shifting? Where do they actually stand?

In mant respects the only certainty with Sinn Fein is that they are well organised, well-resourced and do what Sinn Fein feel they need to do to build Sinn Fein. They are also still the largest perceived force on the left by large numbers of working class people. They are also a force that has no problem moving in any space they see practically useful, from movements, to radical politics, to Trade Unions, NGOs and state institutional power. All of their logic is guided by national unity and national ambition rather then principle or radical social change.

They improved on their last election results going up by 3.9& and ending up on 23 seats. They won seats in particular where they had strong candidates and/or strong group with a history of local community work. Despite this their final vote of 13.8% was actually down on local and European election results. The vicious attack on them by the media had to have played apart. Are they also mistrusted after the water charges campaign, did votes break to the left of them? Did they run a too moderate campaign, little talk of Wealth Taxes and increased high earned tax and punishing the bankers unlike the previous election?

Total Seats 23

What do Sinn Fein do next? If the defining logic is national unity and national ambition there politics will be defined by pragmatic power building. If they feel they have lost too much group to the left they may push left, if they feel they have lost a centrist nationalist vote to Fianna Fail, they move even further to the centre and even right. Whatever happens it seems they will try to dominate opposition to the ruling coalition (whatever form it takes) and re double their efforts to build power across the entire Island.

5) Left Organising V Politics of Aspirations

The Left have had a very mixed election. From the highest proclamations of a left lead government, of hope and change, of an Irish Syriza and/or Podemos, of a new message and progressive majority, to bitter infighting and attacks on elements of the left, to a final result which saw some breakthroughs and successes with other flops. What I want to get across here is that the left only did well, without fail, in areas where they have built a track record of work, have built a base and where they had well organised and well planned election campaigns.

The AAA-PBP held their three seats and gained three. All three were in areas where they have good local election results, had built a base for years and had organised effective election campaigns. They built bases in many other areas and came close in Limerick and North Dublin Bay but did not break through. The other left seats, 4 independents for change, all long standing and popular T’D, Thomas Pringle, Catherine Connolly and Muareen O’Sullivan point towards wins in areas were bases were already there or profiles were already high.

Left Votes (excluding Sinn Fein 23)

  • AAA-PBP 6
  • Indos4Change 4
  • Independents 3
  • Total 13

There were no magic breakthrough for any candidate on the left. No shock tidal wave of hope and change, no Right2Change Community Candidate breakthrough, no magic bullets or special movements.

Surely above all else this has to mean the end of magic aspiration politics. The ideas of you believe hard enough and you will suddenly have change. It has to mean an end to charlatan politics of intellectuals and Egos who have taken a movement and tried to turn it in magic project of self-promotion. Surely the route forward is to say there is no easy solution, no easy win.

We have to fight together to achieve any change, we have to organise long and hard in our communities, we have to reclaim those communities and all other sites of struggle and we have to open out the class struggle the fundamental line that there are and will continue to be huge divides in society that we have to fight on. The problem is that sectarianism and aggressive scapegoating are as likely as critical reflection among many of the left big wigs. Something that has be taken on and challenged by communities and grassroots movements.


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