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From alliances to acrimony: Why is the Irish left so fond of a split?

A brief history of the left-wing splits and alliances of the past decade.

Richard Boyd Barrett and Bríd Smith at the launch of their housing policy.
Richard Boyd Barrett and Bríd Smith at the launch of their housing policy.
Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

ONE OF THE longest-running jokes in Irish politics is that the first item on the agenda for any new party is the split. 

For left-wing parties, it’s particularly accurate. Only last September, TD Paul Murphy announced that he would be leaving the Socialist Party to form new political group RISE: Radical, Internationalist, Socialist and Environmentalist. 

But in doing so, he will (confusingly) still remain in the Solidarity-People Before Profit bloc.

It was another potential blow to the electoral hopes of the broader Irish left, notoriously weak in contrast to the rest of Europe.

So who constitutes the left in Ireland – and why is it so prone to splits? 

The Irish left

For decades, the Labour party was the main parliamentary voice of the Irish left, albeit coming from a soft-left perspective (it’s worth noting that one rural Labour candidate disavowed his party’s 1969 election slogan that “The Seventies will be Socialist” with the less ideological “He Helps you. Now you help him”). 

This wasn’t to say that there were no other left-wing parties – notably The Workers’ Party, which later split to lead to the formation of Democratic Left, also had some electoral success.

And while there were other groupings, “they tended not to get representation in parliament,” according to Trinity College Dublin politics expert Professor Gail McElroy. 

That has changed in the last decade, with a wide array of left-wing parties (all more radical than Labour) all gaining growing support in Ireland. 

“The emergence of a left is a relatively recent phenomenon,” McElroy said. 

Alongside Labour and a collection of left-wing independent TDs, recent years have seen the growth of several left-wing parties. 

The most successful electoral alliance has been Solidarity-People Before Profit, which is running 36 candidates in this election. 

While most voters will now largely be familiar with Solidarity-PBP, its origins lie in a collection of other, smaller left-wing parties.

Formed in 2015, Solidarity was known as Anti-Austerity Alliance until 2017 and currently two candidates – Ruth Coppinger and Mick Barry – are seeking re-election to the Dáil. 

Coppinger and Barry, like all the elected representatives of Solidarity, are members of the Socialist Party. 

The People Before Profit side of the alliance has its roots in the Socialist Workers Party, with outgoing TDs Richard Boyd Barrett, Gino Kenny and Bríd Smith among the leading lights. 

Casting your mind back, you might remember the United Left Alliance, which contested the landmark post-crash 2011 election and was made up of the Socialist Party, People Before Profit and the Workers and Unemployed Action Group. 

It also included former members of the radical wing of Labour. 

Back in 2010, the grouping said that it would put forward a “a real left alternative in the general election and challenge the austerity and capitalist consensus amongst all the parties in the Dáil”. 

The aim was laudable, with newer faces such as Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy joining forces with veteran left-wingers like Joe Higgins. 

“We have a unique and historic opportunity to make a significant step forward in the construction of a new movement that will represent working class people from unemployed, from public sector, from private sector, from pensioners,” Higgins told a meeting of the United Left Alliance in February 2011.

The alliance, which fielded around 20 candidates, proved – for various reasons – unsuccessful, not least because of ideological and strategic differences. 

Even following the flush of success in 2011, with five TDs returned, there were almost immediate tensions. As TheJournal.ie reported back in 2012, People Before Profit TD Joan Collins and then-Socialist Party MEP Murphy disagreed about the pace of change required.  

153 People Before Profit Paul Murphy, Bríd Smith and Solidarity-People Before Profit candidate Conor Reddy during the election campaign. Source: RollingNews.ie

“It’s certainly the Socialist Party’s vision that we would want to be part of a broader left party. We wouldn’t give up our existence but would be part of something broad, a broader party, like a political party,” Murphy said in 2012

The Socialist Workers Party, or Socialist Workers Network, comes under the umbrella of People Before Profit, while the Socialist Party grew from a split with Labour. 

Despite plenty of similarities, the parties failed to cohere into a united entity and the alliance proved short-lived – eventually folding in 2013 after the Socialist Party left the grouping.

As Higgins said in 2011: “Just by naming something a party does not make it a party. We cannot wish something into existence that is simply not there. The circumstances are not there at present.”

In part, the reason for the propensity to splits and divisions among the left-wing parties is that they are sincerely ideological than either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, who are both happy to resemble more of a broader church. 

The former party of course, which came to power for the first time in 1932 with an explicitly left-wing message, quickly morphed into something more similar to what political scientists call a ‘catch-all’ party. 

Despite the challenges of recent years, the radical left-wing parties have never truly abandoned policy programmes of socialist ideas.

“You get these splits for personalities and ideological reasons,” said McElroy.

One under-discussed reason for the preponderance of left-wing parties might also be the nature of our electoral system. 

“It can sustain a number of parties,” said McElroy. 

Unlike first-past-the-post in the UK, which encourages a winner-takes-all approach to vote-getting, there is no such overriding incentive under Ireland’s proportional PR-STV system. 

This means, whereas Labour in the UK is the main repository of a broad swathe of support – from voters in centre-left to the far-left – people in Ireland are offered much more choice by the electoral system, meaning more parties are able to survive. 

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