No political home for advocates of a just society

By Vincent Browne (for the Irish Times)

The Sinn Fein website records that a motion at the party’s ardfheis last weekend, that Sinn Fein “will not, under any circumstances, enter into coalition or any other electoral pact with Fianna Fail before, during or after a general election” was lost.


It records that another motion calling on Sinn Fein “not to go into power with other parties in government, such as Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, as this would be incompatible with our politics and would damage the party”, was passed with amendments.

In fact the substance of the motion was lost and a gobbledegook amendment was passed with predictable fudges, allowing the leadership more or less absolute discretion to do what they like, subject of course to endorsement by a special ardfheis.

The position, therefore, is that all the parties in the Dail are willing to go into government with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, knowing one or other of these parties will be the major party of government and will set the agenda for that government.

In the last 40 years, the Labour Party has gone into coalition government with Fine Gael on four occasions and once with Fianna Fail. It is possible to argue that in each of these coalitions, some progress was made towards making this a more socially just and open society. There were significant increases in social welfare during some of these governments. There was reform of the laws governing the financing of elections and of political parties. A Freedom of Information Act was introduced. Other laws and initiatives on child care, the health services and education were introduced.

Also the very act of removing the party of government, Fianna Fail, from office now and again had a regenerative effect.

But what effect has there been in terms of changing power structures in Irish society, in terms of a significant redistribution of wealth and income, in terms of making a major inroad into the scale of inequality here, or giving a large part of the population a sense of empowerment, of esteem, of being involved in all aspects of society? Damn all. Damn all because the lead party of government, Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, had no interest in doing anything substantial on these issues.

They talk of incrementalism, how gradual improvement can edge us towards what Fine Gael once envisaged as a “just society”. We now know this is poppycock. It hasn’t happened over the 40 years and will not happen.

We are not talking of a Marxist revolution here, for that could not happen at present without a subversion of the will of the people. We are talking, however, about some major steps towards a more equal society, a society such as Denmark, which is very much more egalitarian and remains very prosperous and successful (even by conventional criteria).

We are talking about a society that would give priority to the regeneration of deprived areas within a few years, ie priority over roads, airports and everything else. We are talking about a significant shift in the distribution of income through tax and social welfare. We are talking about capping incomes in the public sector and in the private sector funded by the public purse (eg the banks) at, say, 150,000 euro, and ensuring that nobody gets less than the equivalent of 20,000 euro for a single person, and heavy taxation on incomes in the private sector over 150,000 euro.

We are talking about a society that would impose a single tier, publicly funded, health service (if people wanted private medicine they would be free to pay for it themselves, with no State subsidy). Ditto in education. And a publicly-funded pension scheme for all citizens, with no tax breaks for private pensions.

These are not revolutionary ideas that the Irish public would find abhorrent, although it would take a formidable effort of campaigning to counter the onslaught such a programme would invite from the vested interests. But we are wasting our time thinking this can come about in any government of which Fianna Fail or Fine Gael is a part. I am not saying these parties are without principles or ideals, rather that they do not share the kind of ideals suggested here.

But Labour is gung-ho for another coalition. It wants power and that’s it. So too with Sinn Fein. So anybody who wants a significantly fairer society must look elsewhere. But where?

The fact is there is no alternative and the left-wing groups, organisations, small parties, the community groups that have been ravaged by the cuts and the cynicisms, the NGOs, all awaiting either a convulsion that will change the social order or a Messiah to lead them out of the desert, will wait in vain.

The only hope is that those who want a radically more just society get together now and form a left alliance, to start a campaign that may take 40 years to succeed. And they need to start now. But at least those 40 years wouldn’t be wasted.

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