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Why 1916 still decides Irish elections after a century

Again, we hear that there are no significant ideological differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – both are centre-right parties. So what divides voters?

It was widely thought that the centenary of the Easter Rising, to be commemorated over the coming weeks, would influence the Irish election at the end of February. Recently, all of the prizes at the annual Irish Times university student debating competition were won by speakers opposing the motion that this should be the last year in which the uprising is remembered. One victorious debater argued that the rebellion was about equality, democracy and independence and that these ideals still resonated “louder than cannon fire . . . as relevant today as they were radical then”.

The failed uprising achieved success two years later when Sinn Fein, the broad nationalist movement that it produced, swept the boards in the 1918 general election. The Irish Parliamentary Party, which had lobbied for home rule for almost four decades at Westminster, was consigned to history. Sovereignty, not devolution, was the new watch cry. But after a guerrilla war brought the British government to the negotiating table, Sinn Fein split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, some accepting a de facto independent state in the empire soon to become a commonwealth, others holding out for a republic.

After a brief but very bitter civil war, in which the anti-treaty side was defeated, these two factions of the movement became the dominant political parties of 20th-century Ireland: Fine Gael (pro-treaty) and Fianna Fáil (anti-treaty).

On the surface, the election result suggests that their time is up. For more than six decades, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael commanded over 80 per cent of the votes cast in any election. This year, they received barely 50 per cent of the vote between them. Ever since domestic television came to Ireland in 1961, commentators have predicted that the treaty split could not continue as the basis for Irish politics. A landmark on the journey to a new order appeared to have been reached five years ago when Fianna Fáil lost 51 of its 71 seats in the first election since the crash of the Celtic Tiger boom. With the Lib Dem-style wipeout of the Labour Party on 26 February, after five years in coalition, a significant increase in votes and seats for the modern Sinn Fein, and the success of small parties and independents, some are suggesting that this election brings the demise of the dominant parties ever closer.

But are these the “seismic changes” that some Irish commentators are hailing? The Fine Gael-Labour coalition of 2011-16 suffered a significant fall in support, from 56 per cent to 32 per cent. But most of those votes seem to have gone to Fianna Fáil, the party that was thought to have been irreparably wounded last time around. It has more than doubled its number of seats and has just over 1 per cent of the vote less than Fine Gael. A Fine Gael minority government, supported from the opposition benches by Fianna Fáil, is the most likely outcome of the negotiations over the next few weeks.

Again, we hear that there are no significant ideological differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – both are centre-right parties. In the minds of their membership and voters, they are distinguished by the kinds of affinities prized by advertising executives. Fine Gael appears stolid and middle class, Fianna Fáil profligate and populist. What is remarkable is that although Irish politics has been transformed over the past 25 years – with the end of the republic’s claim on Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement, the collapse of the authority of the Catholic Church, immigration, a boom and a bust that exposed corruption – the party system remains resilient, if battered.

The perception persists that getting things done requires a return to the two big parties. Challenges based on hardcore liberalism have withered; the left is disparate. Some argue that the system’s failure to adjust to a new reality shows that it is rotten. But the reversion to the mean has its positives. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, Ireland has no populist anti-immigrant party. The few politicians who have tried to run with this got nowhere.

One reason to suggest Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would not opt for a grand coalition is that they would be giving Sinn Fein the opportunity to establish itself as the alternative. But Sinn Fein is aspiring to be the new Fianna Fáil. So, even if the realignment came to pass, it might result in Ireland having three parties with little to distinguish them except their views on a treaty with Britain that was signed almost a century ago. The student debater argued: “Identity in Ireland is so rooted in 1916 that people come out of the womb advocating for one faction or another.” Against all the odds, he might be right.

Maurice Walsh’s book “Bitter Freedom” is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.