Who's left in the wake of Irish austerity?

AuthorAdshead, Maura


With the sole exception of Iceland, the downturn in the Irish economy in 2007 and 2008 was the most severe of any experienced by an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development member state. In Ireland, the crisis was widely understood to have five key dimensions: a banking crisis, a public finance crisis, an economic crisis, a social crisis and a reputational crisis. This article examines the political impact of that crisis, focusing in particular on the impact that austerity politics has had upon the evolution of the Irish left. The article traces the political responses to crisis inside and outside the Dail and examines their potential to support the growth of anti-austerity politics in Ireland.


anti-austerity, citizen movements, Great Recession, Irish general election 2016, Irish left


Definitions of 'the Left' differ across time and space, between states and within them (Stammers 2001; Thomson 2000). Moreover, where once the distinction was primarily economically oriented, concerned with economic redistribution, welfare and government regulation of the economy; developments since the 1970s have incorporated noneconomic issues associated with lifestyle, gender and value orientation into the realm of the left-right dichotomy (Fuchs & Klingemann 1990; Inglehart 1984, 1997). As a result, in most Western European states, left-right has both a socio-economic and a sociocultural component (Kitschelt 2004). Still, left-right remains a core dimension, a shortcut in political communication, used by political actors, voters, scholars and journalists to reduce political complexity to simple intuitive terms (Elas & Brug 2015: 198).

According to Bobbio (1) (1997: 56), left and right are 'not intrinsic qualities of a political universe' but terms located within a particular 'political space', denoting two sides of a political spectrum. This re-framing of an enduring dichotomy in politics was significant: first, because Bobbio's (1997) work is a seminal piece that summarizes a huge debate on the left-right and, second, because his conclusions are equally concerned with the left-right distinction in terms of political philosophy as they are with contemporary politics (Lukes 2005). Bobbio (1997: 67) argues that the left and right are ultimately divided by different attitudes to equality: the left strives for greater equality and the right legitimizes inequality. Essentially, those on the left believe that inequality in society is socially created and therefore can be eradicated. Those on the right feel that inequality is a manifestation of natural forces and therefore inevitable. The policies of the left aim at making those who are unequal more equal. In order to achieve this goal, the left favours the welfare state and the right to general education (Bobbio 1997).

Although the extent to which ordinary people develop their political understanding of left-right in terms of ideological concepts such as socialism, liberalism and conservatism is debatable, arguably the left-right framework provides a source of political identity that helps to orient individuals to politics (LeDuc et al. 2010: 146). Most people can locate themselves on a left-right scale, and as such, the left-right is often presented as a 'super-issue' representing 'whatever major conflicts are present in the political system' (Inglehart 1990: 273; Kitschelt & Hellemans 1990: 211; see also: Fuchs & Klingemann 1990).

Conceptualizing indices to measure left-right political orientations is an on-going methodological discussion beyond the scope of this article (for a summary review, see Jahn 2010). What is significant, however, is that whatever method of measurement is used, the Republic of Ireland has always had an unusually low score for identification with the left. Survey evidence from the World Values Surveys has consistently shown that when Irish respondents are asked to identify where they are located on a left-right spectrum, they place themselves significantly further to the right, on average, than other Europeans. Nevertheless, these findings co-exist with a typically pragmatic attitude towards economic development and an egalitarian attitude towards the redistribution of resources. There is little evidence of any commitment to ideologies of the extreme right, and despite an acknowledged degree of political conservatism, these contradictory survey findings point more towards a weakness of the left, than any grand predisposition towards the right.

This is no newsflash to scholars of Irish politics. There are a number of conventional and uncontested explanations for the weakness of the Irish left. Cut off from continental influence, the industrial revolution and the plight of the urban working classes were entirely foreign to Irish society. Added to this, partition left the six industrial counties of the north outside the newly independent state and with them the manufacturing heartlands and urban concentrations that might have sustained the emergence of a strong working class or trade union (TU) movement. The preservation and maintenance of conservative values and attitudes was more easily maintained in a rural and peasant culture, buttressed and supported by the dominant influence of the Catholic Church. In contrast to many other European states, the power and influence of the Catholic Church was further secured when it became enmeshed with the nationalist struggle and as Catholicism became an important element in the construction of Irish identity.

Since national attention was monopolized by the British connection, there was a loss of contact and interest in continental Europe and 'the national pastime of attributing social and economic evils to English influence provided observers with an easy explanation and an excuse for not analysing the situation at a deeper level' (MacMahon 1981: 280). In addition, the idea was promulgated that because British rule and the Protestant Establishment had been overthrown, Ireland was somehow a classless society (McLaughlin 1993: 209). The fact that this is not true (O'Leary 1990) is less important than the fact that so many believed it to be true, and as a consequence, in Ireland social class did not translate into class politics (Mair 1992: 389). This attitude is borne out by the 'the striking electoral debility of class-based, left-wing parties' in Ireland and the fact that 'there is no other single country in western Europe that even approaches the weak position of the Irish left' (Mair 1992: 384-385).

Underpinning these conventional explanations for the weakness of the Irish left are a set of implicit assumptions about what is required to develop the left: a political environment that facilitates a contestation of ideas, political actors who offer alternative political explanations oriented to a left-right framework and citizens willing to mobilize in terms of a left-right political orientation. These assumptions are not only empirically based but also theoretically rooted in a variety of academic literatures. In their work on capitalist development and democracy, for example, Rueschemeyer et al. (1992) build on Lipset and Rokkan's (1967) work by arguing that 'sectarian Protestantism (but not Lutheranism) encouraged democracy because it strengthened civil society and tended to insulate its members from ruling-class hegemony' (p. 275). The partition of the Ireland not only ensured that dissent from Catholic hegemony was less likely but also helped to constrain the rise of secular democratic movements. As their comparative study illustrates, 'Dissenting religions in all countries in which they were strong were breeding grounds for popular democratic movements. By contrast, state churches, Catholic or Lutheran (and the parties supported by them), were conduits for ruling-class ideologies' (Rueschemeyer et al. 1992: 275).

Added to this, more institutionally oriented literature on political parties and party systems notes that while parties may have some capacity to adapt and change their ideology in response to public opinions, some parties remain 'prisoners of their own history' so that 'aspects of the ideology a party had with it was founded persist even after the conditions in which it developed have changed, and the party's history shapes how it adapts when it is able to do so' (Ware 1996: 18). In this respect, the fact that the two largest Irish political parties are divided by the positions they took in the civil war following independence, and that both are socially conservative, has further stymied the development of a left identity in Irish politics. In short, in Ireland, for most of the last century the super-ordinate left-right dichotomy has not been the default political framework used by the majority of Irish political parties and voters.

Still, there are signs that this is changing. An example is the seismic electoral shifts that occurred in the 2011 General election, reducing Fianna Fail support to only 20 seats, augmenting the slow but steady rise of Sinn Fein in Republic of Ireland politics and heralding a new group of political independents loosely bound together as the 'United Left', all pointed to a significant realignment of Irish politics, where a space for left politics is now more clearly evident.

The purpose of this article is to examine that space, both inside and outside the Dail, in order to identify whether or not the conditions that contribute to the weakness of the left in Ireland are changing. The first section of the article addresses the issue of political environment and the extent to which it facilitates a contestation of ideas. It outlines some of the key structural constraints to the development of left politics in Ireland, which remained in place until the economic crisis of 2008-2009. The second section examines the availability of political actors offering alternative explanations of the crisis based on a left-right...

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