Ireland: Byelection triumph marks turning point in anti-austerity struggle

Irealnd-MurphyPaul Murphy wins parliamentary seat as 100,000 march against water charges

12 October 2014 will be a day that’s remembered for years to come in Ireland. An estimated 100,000 marched in Dublin against the hated water charges. And on the same day, Paul Murphy, Socialist Party member and Anti Austerity Alliance (AAA) candidate, won the Dublin South West byelection by leading the call for a mass campaign of non-payment and active resistance to this double tax. Paul joins Socialist Party TDs Joe Higgins and Ruth Coppinger in the Daíl (Irish parliament). Ruth won a byelection in Dublin West five months ago.

Just over one year ago, the campaign against the Property Tax was defeated, which undoubtedly demoralised many working class people. But out of that campaign the AAA was formed, on the initiative of the Socialist Party, to contest the elections in May 2014. It received a warm welcome from the working class with the election of 14 councillors nationally.

Those elections were an indication of a turning point in people’s understanding of the potential to resist austerity after seven years of onslaught. 12 October was a social explosion based on that sentiment.

Victory in Sinn Fein heartland

A delivery of posters arrived at Sinn Fein HQ in Dublin South West on the morning of Friday 3 October, one week before election day. They carried the slogan that had served Sinn Fein so well in the local and European elections just over four months prior, in which they had made an historic electoral breakthrough. They read simply: “Make the change”.

This was part of their plan for a last big push to secure victory in one of their heartland constituencies. But as teams of determined Sinn Fein activists set out in different directions across the constituency they suddenly became dejected and frustrated. They were met with a sea of red, black and yellow AAA posters carrying a response to the posters they hadn’t even erected yet: “Make the REAL change – vote 1 Paul Murphy”.

This was symbolic of how the election overall played out from beginning to end. The AAA set the agenda and was one step ahead in the cut and thrust of the political battle. AAA made the election not just about being against water charges, but about how to beat them, and crucially about who working class people can trust in this fight.

The choice was made clear: should people put their hopes in another political party, like Sinn Fein, to form a government that may abolish water charges (as many had done with Labour previously) or should they rely instead on organising in communities, on mass non-payment and protest, and on building political pressure that no government can ignore.

In keeping with the revolt that is emerging against water charges throughout the Irish state, a majority chose the latter and voted for the AAA.

All of the political analysts and commentators in Ireland agreed that this election was Sinn Fein’s ‘to lose’ and nobody thought that the AAA could win. The bookies put Sinn Fein at 1/25 to win going in to the election and the AAA at 16/1. The local and European elections in May of this year were characterized by a swing to Sinn Fein, particularly in working class communities in Dublin where the Labour Party was turfed out on the back of their betrayals and broken promises.

A nationwide opinion poll published by the Irish Times two days before the election put Sinn Fein level with Fine Gael – the main right-wing party in government – indicating a continuation of that swing. Sinn Fein were extremely confident.

But they underestimated the AAA and its ability to convince people of the need for an active fight on the issue and to expose the weaknesses of Sinn Fein’s own approach.

The Irish Times newspaper on the day after the election wrote that the AAA campaign was a “master stroke in political tactics and timing”. The result was a major upset, which would have been impossible without a correct political assessment and an ability to give expression to an underlying anger. It also took a huge amount of hard work from many dedicated activists and supporters.

The lesson that must be taken is that the time to build a new movement to represent working people and against the water charges and all austerity, is now. That will be the focus of the AAA from here onwards.

Posted in: International, Ireland