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April 14, 2010


Robin Hanan

Great piece, Michael. It fits well with the Browne piece before it.
I agree strongly that:
* now is the time to break the FG/FF led government cycle. Clearly, from the left this is an opportunity to make a breakthrough, not just, or even mainly, electorally, but in terms of the way people generally see the potential of politics to change their lives. Equally, from a democratic point of view, a cycle of essentially identical governments is bound to lead to alienation – the mantra "you are all the F***** same when you get into Government" is largely true
* the left needs to be more tolerant and cooperative among ourselves, without pretending we don’t have differences. Shouting ‘betrayal’ at people who make different tactical decisions might feel satisfying, but goes nowhere. The three parties you discuss have all worked in conservative led governments (FF, FG, DUP). In fact, it is fair to say that all Green politicians are motivated mainly by an agenda of policy change (not all would call it 'left') rather than clientalism, which you could not say about all Labour or SF politicians
* a few common points of agreement on the economy would be a strong starting point – a one-page ‘alternative economic strategy’. Clearly this is what many in Labour will be reluctant to suppport because of the fear that any strong policy oppositions will either make it hard to make an agreement with FG or, at the least, will be quoted at them in 5 years time when they are in Government.
I would add to your list of shibboleths “a perpetual growth economy” but agree with the rest of your list.
The choice for Labour is starker than for the other parties. If they continue to simply bash the government, along with FG, they can expect to cruise neatly into 5 or 10 years of Government with FG, winningesponsibility but not power. At the end of this time, the electorate will be thoroughly disillusioned with politics and the new Conor Lenihan/Gerry Adams coalition will be easily elected on a very low poll. If Labour takes a clear stand on the left, they may not be in the next government but can contribute to building a stronger left.

It would be useful to consider, in this debate, some principles:
1. It's not all about being in Government: a strong campaigning group or party outside the cabinet can often shift policy more than one inside. See Gregory etc. I really believe that, with the growing concern about global warming, a Green Party in opposition could have achieved much more than in Governemtn
2. Ireland has less connection between policy and politics than any other country in Western Europe that I can think of. This is deep in our culture, not just a matter of 'betrayal' by politicians. To break that cynicism, which is deeply tied up with clientalism, the key messages have to be very clear - like Obama headlining access to health as a cover for much more complex debates on how to actually reform health care
3. Most of the short-term demands of the Irish left are actually quite modest in historic terms, catching up with the gains in Scandinavia in the 1930s and most of the rest of Europe after 1945. Although these gains are now under attack everywhere, winning average Western European taxation, healthcare, social services, housing, controls on finance etc. would transform Ireland in the short term. This gives us a lot to gain from solidarity and learning within the EU
4. There will probably never be a single, majority left party again in a Western country. We are all learning how to work better across a spectrum of parties and forces on the left, as well as making alliances with more conservative forces on particular issues, from health to sexuality to bank regulation.
5. A lot of political activism, perhaps most, is outside party politics. The community sector, in particular, is the main starting point for thousands of people who want change. However, there are restraints on how this can be mobilised: since community groups are cross-party lobbying groups, they cannot commit as easily to joint political statements as, for example, trade unions. Trade unionists are generally more party political, but less radical. They are able to put out strong messages, but the day-to-day realities of bargaining with government and employers lead to mixed messages

It is not essential that the thrust for left unity comes from within the party system. Some of the ideas are coming out of think-tanks and alliances like TACS and Is Feidir Linn, though they still need to be translated into clear mobilising slogans.
There are several tactical possibilities worth discussing (and urgently) for example:
• A lead by one party (probably Labour) which would need a strong push from within
• A process from outside the parties to engage the left parties and other groups in coming to agreed positions. This would not have to be a single manifesto, but could be built up painstakingly policy by policy: e.g.: “a welfare state and how to pay for it”; “workers and consumers’ rights”; “equality in the 21st century”; “full employment poicy”; “a socially and environmentally progressive stimulus policy” etc. etc. A single manifesto would be better, but not essential
• Cooperation at local level – left councillors and local community/union activists. Like Britain in the 70s, but involving more parties. The symbolic stances could be as important in defining left/right battle lines as the “practical” ones
• Common campaigns – though beware of the far-left cycle of protest-arrest-protest which is fun for activists but doesn’t move public opinion on much
• A lead from left councillors in local government. If the majority, take clear public stances and show up the Government when they are blocked. If not a majority, stand together and campaign together in public anyway
• A series of local serious (and facilitated) discussions among activists from left parties and movements about these ideas. These would need to follow strict rules, to stop them becoming ‘purer than-thou’ contests, but this could be the start of something really exciting
Lets get moving on this one way or the other once we can agree where to start.

Robin Hanan

Vincent Byrne

I am delighted that this discussion is taking place. Robin above makes an excellent point when he says "Ireland has less connection between policy and politics than any other country in Western Europe that I can think of"

This is the major task ahead for any activism-to make that connection. Excellent work is being done on blogs like this, progressive economy and others as well as think thanks. this work must be pushed out-not just disseminated and linked on the web-but it must meet with activism and voluntarism where it actually is. Linking the virtual world with the active world and making it a thinking world -so to speak. keep up the good work.


Could you imagine the reaction? The combined strength of the Right – from parties to media to employers’ organisations – would denounce us a delusional, selfish, suicidal, etc. It would be orgy of derision, contempt and opposition.

Or perhaps not. Marc Coleman argues for the same thing in his latest book (Back from the brink). And dedicated alternating left-wing and right-wing governments would surely be an improvement over centrist governments (at least occasionally e.g. Bertie & the Inchidoney accord) implementing left & right wing policies simultaneously.

Nat O'Connor

To begin optimistically, the political scientist and psephologist Arend Lijphart studied the data on countless elections as well as the cultural underpinnings supporting the way people vote. His theory of 'frozen cleavages' was, put simply, that people coalesce around different social divisions (e.g. religion, langugage, social class, etc.) and that, over time, these cleavages 'freeze'. Loyalties to parties remain, even after the original social division has lessened or vanished. Then, when events bring about a period of rapid change and turbulence (like in Ireland today), the old cleavages thaw and people once again coalesce around the new social divisions. New loyalties are born, which freeze and remain stable for another generation or two. In Ireland, we are undoubtedly in a period of thawing loyalties. So major realignment of support among existing (and potentially new) parties is certainly possible.

Which brings me to my second point. The main thing is not simply that Labour and other progressives must band together. To state the obvious, a credible alternative governing party must attract many people who currently vote for FF or FG.

There is a question of whether the proposed progressive alliance aims to broaden its appeal to win a majority (or at least a comfortablely large swathe) of seats, or whether it would aim to retain a traditional conception of 'left' politics and simply win more seats than either FF or FG, on the assumption that it would dominate the economic paradigm of the next government.

This decision is not insignificant, in either strategic or policy terms. Whatever party leads an attempt to replace FF and FG for the Taoiseach's seat will have to choose this path early on, because swaying between the options will constantly alienate supporters on either side and undermine its credibility. Also, this choice is between seeking the permanent shrinking of FF and/or FG as a political force versus only attracting 'left' voters and creating a three-horse race.


So am I the only one that thinks that avoiding spending the next thirty years giving Anglo money is more important than engineering a political realignment that has been hankered after for the last thirty years?

Lets get our priorities straight.

Michael Taft

Robin - thanks for that comprehensive comment of which there is little I disagree with. The programmatic suggestions hit the spot - the only problem I have is, how do we kick-start this? As you rightly say - there is a disconnect between policy and politics. There is also a disconnect between rhetoric and substance. Teasing this out constructively will be difficult. This reflects Vincent's concern to connect the virtual world with the active world - connecting thought and action. I can only say - I am really open to ideas of how to achieve this. But achieve this we must.

Mack - there will be thoughtful people across the spectrum who see the need for a politics that throw up alternatives rather than variations on the same theme. Hopefully, they will out-number the status-quo-ers. I'm pessimistic but Marc Coleman is a good start.

Nat - your two points are crucial. Creating a broad-based programme that goes outside our own ghettos but creates a progressive alternative. I am not pessimistic about this. Wealth generations, job creation, redistribution, transparency and accountability across the political and economic sphere - this can be led by progressives and appeal across a number of divides that kept us a minority force.

Second, and here I do get pessimistic, you're right: we have to announce ourselves early and consistently over a sustained period. No obfuscation, no deviation, no flip-flopping. Is that happening now? I fear not. As to how we can address that - see my request above: I'm open to all ideas.

Barry - what if we discovered how we can get out from nonsensical policies and promote better ones to create wealth, jobs and prosperity but we didn't have a vehicle to win over a majority of people to achieve this. Both issues are intertwined: policies without the opportunity to implemenet is pretty barren.


I'm a bit late adding my thoughts here but here goes.
Its assumed that the problems in Ireland are caused by a right-wing or capitalist agenda. The way to rectify them are by adopting a progressive or socialist approach. I wonder is this necessarily the best way or if it is an accurate analysis.
I'm inclined to the view that the problem is specifically a Fianna Fail corruption problem.
A friend of mine summed up FF policy a few years ago - "whatever you do make sure your friends get the money". Over the last few years I have applied this idea when trying to work out what was happening to Ireland and it explains all!
FF are not a right-wing capitalist party in the traditional sense - they are a traditionally corrupt party. To put Ireland on a new path FF must become extinct. We must become a country in which politics is between the Left and the Right but both sides are motivated by a common desire to do what is best for the country even though they differ on the means.
The first step of this approach is thet Fine Gael get a majority in their own right. This could kill off FF and open the way for modern politics to become part of the Irish landscape. Its a more realistic alternative than hoping that the traditional Left in Ireland will put asice their differences and make common cause.
Vincent Browne's article was good but last night on his TV show he questioned Senator White on some decision wich he thought to be wrong that Labour had made. This decision was made by Labour when in Government in 1974!!! Talk about living in the past.That's 36 years ago - the Left in Ireland have long memories.


I'm late joining in here but i just found the original post.

For years i have argued the line that Michael puts forward here but now that its actually gaining some currency I think I've turned against it. Here's why:

Post election let's say we have FF on 50 seats, FG on 65, most of the rest broadly left leaning. The left coallesces (as never before) and refuses to support either party. Let's imagine for a minute that they stick to their guns and withstand the media onslaught, and let's believe that rather than face an election, FF and FG join together.

Now such a coalition would have many internal problems but it would also have 115 seats and overwhelming media support. After the traumas of settling in, it would be a right wing dream.
Lenihan, Ahern, Bruton, Varadkar et al would be jumping across each other trying to show who could be toughest and meanest. In other eras maybe we could afford a few years of this in the long term interest, but now we can't. By the next election there would be no welfare state and little public service. Lives would be destroyed.

It sickens me to say it, but this is the one time when we need to do a deal and then work relentlessly in government to undermine the neo-liberals and lay the ground work for a better future.

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