Sinn Féin rally against Household and Water Taxes in 2012. Flickr/ Sinn Féin. Some rights reserved
Once upon a time when Irish people found themselves the victims of oppression, they took up arms to fight the wrongs they suffered. In twenty-first century Ireland, the oppressed now use their vote as a weapon and take their fight to the ballot box. This passive rebellious streak is what shone through best in Ireland’s local and European elections of May 23.
Since the conservative Fine Gael party came to power in Ireland with the aid of the Labour party in 2011, austerity has washed over the Irish public is great waves of financial pain. A household charge was made on every homeowner in the state and shortly afterwards replaced with a much more costly property tax. In today’s Ireland you are financially punished if you own your own home.
A highly contentious water tax was introduced which only added more financial woes to people already saddled with various other taxes and charges. All avenues seem to be explored when the Irish government wants to slap a tax on something. Apart from facing the numerous taxes and charges, deep cuts in necessities such as health and education have only added to the growing anti-government sentiment across Ireland.
The electoral winners of this social frustration are those on the left of the Irish political spectrum, the Socialist Party, the People Before Profit Movement, but most notably Sinn Fein. In the local and European elections of May 23, the government parties of Fine Gael and Labour lost seats at local and European level but it was the Labour party which suffered the worst.
The Labour Party lost many seats in the election but they also lost all credibility as the voice of the Irish working class. When Labour went into government with Fine Gael in 2011, they were the second biggest party in the country. Three years later, Labour now finds itself living on a life support machine after receiving a ferocious wallop from the electorate at the local and European elections of 2014.
The one-time Labour voter now feels betrayed by a party which promised to represent their views. During the 2011 election that brought Labour to power, one of its campaign promises was to reject the introduction of crippling taxes, most notably the water tax, and to ward off any austerity measures that can hurt the middle and working classes.
During three years of government life with their parliamentary partners Fine Gael, the Labour party failed in protecting those they claimed to represent. They failed to stop the water tax and neither did they oppose the household charge, or property tax. They oversaw the destruction of the education system and turned a blind eye when parents of disabled children had their health assistance subjected to tight scrutiny.
In government, the Labour party gave their blessing to harsh austerity measures which surely must have the party’s founders James Connolly and Jim Larkin spinning in their graves. But Labour’s betrayal of the working class has now cost them dearly. Much like the old ruling Fianna Fail party in the 2011 general election, Labour have all but been completely wiped from the Irish political landscape, a landscape that is swinging further to the left and one which is being moulded by the dramatic rise of Sinn Fein.
The Sinn Fein of thirty years ago is a far cry from the Sinn Fein of 2014. The party’s high profile leaders such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness who were once vilified as terrorists are now regarded as peacemakers in the same light as the likes of Nelson Mandela.
The Sinn Fein of 30 years ago had but one sole aim of achieving a united Ireland, but now in 2014, Sinn Fein has more than just that one political goal. Social justice and equality is now a key foundation to the modern day Sinn Fein manifesto, one which is reeling in former Labour voters who have been left disfranchised. Sinn Fein, the oldest political party in Ireland at 110 years old, is experiencing a popularity which is translated into high poll ratings. If such popularity can be increased further then it will only be a matter of time before it becomes a governing body both in the north and south of Ireland.
In the May 23 elections, Sinn Fein ran four candidates in each of the four European electoral areas in Ireland and each of the Sinn Fein candidates won. Labour won no European seat. In the local elections Sinn Fein picked up 160 seats while Labour managed to win only 51, and populist parties such as Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have tried constantly but in vain to use Sinn Fein’s past in order to dissuade people from supporting them. Many of those now voting for Sinn Fein were not alive when the troubles occurred across the north and Sinn Fein were better known as the political wing of the IRA. The modern Irish voter only cares for the here and now, not the past.
When Irish voters chose Fine Gael to take power in 2011 they were not voting for the party of the 1930s which aligned itself with fascists such as General Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy. When voters chose Fianna Fail to lead the country in 1997 they were not voting for the party of the 1980s which was corrupt to the core. When voters gave Sinn Fein a massive surge in the recent local and European elections they were not voting for the party that was once the mouth organ of the IRA.
In the Ireland of 2014 there is a heaving social division which was imposed through the introduction of austerity measures. Modern day Irish society is divided between the haves and the have-nots, and it is the latter which made up the large proportion that came out in force for the May 23 elections to punish those who oversee such austerity.
The current unrelenting social depression means Sinn Fein’s rise is an inevitable one as they continue to be the people’s choice as the main alternative to austerity. For many years their slogan was ‘Tiocfaidh ar La’ (Our Day Will Come), it seems Sinn Fein may need to change it soon as their day is fast approaching.