Thursday 22 August 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'The Irish left can't make up its mind what to think of Europe'

They may claim to hate Nigel Farage's Brexit Party, but Irish socialists are itching to copy his blueprint, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

It's a sign of how deeply Brexit has infiltrated the national consciousness that Nigel Farage has repeatedly taken centre stage in the European election debate in Ireland, despite representing a party which isn't even running candidates here.

Independents 4 Change TD Clare Daly is the latest to become unnaturally fixated on the Brexit Party leader, taking the opportunity last week to denounce his views as "warped, very mad and horrible", whilst simultaneously using his electoral success as an example of how individuals can make a difference in Brussels - "albeit an appalling one, in that instance".

When the Dublin woman attacks Farage for peddling dangerously simplistic solutions to complex problems, is there never a part of her that wonders if she might not be guilty of the same thing?

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He's a right-wing populist, and she's a left-wing populist, but surely one of the things that's become apparent is that populism is a political force in its own right, and one that's shaping politics the world over in ways that unpick the traditional left/right divide, for both good and ill. When Europe was a more burning issue in Irish politics, and the Troika controlled the purse strings, left-wing parties in the Dail were more than happy to stir the same anti-EU pot. Suddenly they're attacking Farage for saying now what they often said in the past.

Daly herself stood in the 2011 Dail election for the Socialist Party, whose manifesto that year demanded: "Don't pay the bankers' debts and reject the EU/IMF austerity diktats". The party denied that this would cause economic problems, and who knows it may have been right. There is certainly no question that the imposition of Europe's banking debts on Ireland, which cost the country 25pc of its GDP, whilst Germany's loss was just 1.5pc, was unjust and forced on the Irish only because they were too weak at the time to refuse; but be honest, rejecting it would have had consequences too.

If the anti-EU mood which the socialists were happy to stoke back in 2011 has dispersed, it's because the economy has since stabilised; but the reason it's done so, the Government would argue, is because the country stuck to the rules and took the pain. Some of them may express that in tones of unctuous gratitude which grate on the ear, but the argument is clear. We took the medicine, we came through, now let's move on.

And who didn't want Ireland to do that? Politicians on the left like Daly.

She now denounces Farage, though his passionate denunciation of the EU's treatment of Ireland when it was on its knees - delivered to February's controversial 'Irexit' conference in Dublin - could have been lifted straight from any Socialist Party campaign literature just a few short years ago. At least those campaigning for their respective countries to get out of Europe, such as former Greek minister Zoe Konstantopoulou, leader of the new left of centre Course of Freedom party, who describes the EU as a "monstrous construction which we need to take down", are prepared to follow the logic of their anti-austerity positions.

The Irish left would rather have its cake, eat it, then have it and eat it again, endlessly.

Even its attacks on the EU's military ambitions are entirely in tune with Brexit Party and Ukip talking points. Why are they "lunatics on the far right", as Daly described them last week, for raising those concerns, whilst she and her comrades pose as champions of the people?

Irish left-wing positions on Europe have a habit of oscillating wildly from one moment to the next. By the time of the last European elections in 2014, People Before Profit had taken to insisting that the party was "not 'anti-Europe'" at all. "Quite the contrary," its manifesto that year reassured voters, "it is the way the EU is run that we object to."

Sinn Fein does the same. Despite voting against every EU treaty since 1973, it now describes itself as "Euro-critical" rather than Eurosceptic. It's a classic cop-out. Many supporters of Brexit would say the same. Indeed, many pro-EU establishment parties, such as Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, insist they want reform too. Everyone wants reform.

The truth is simpler. The Irish left doesn't like the EU any more than Farage does. It just want to get elected to it anyway, and there's no pathway to doing that by being openly anti-EU in a country where 93pc most recently said EU membership had been beneficial.

That's also why Sinn Fein, which once called the EU a "soulless capitalist club", has radically softened its tone. It needs wins in these elections too, to keep up momentum.

Electing a few left-wing Irish MEPs is never going to make much difference to the laws which are passed in Brussels, but admitting as much would be electoral suicide. So they keep having to bring out the same bag of old tricks, using the rise of Farage to insist, as Daly did last week, that "people with backbone and radicalism and a bit of a brass neck can actually shake up the European Parliament, and I have to say it needs to be shaken up, because citizens... [are] being left behind". They're denouncing Farage whilst using him as a template. He could take it as a compliment, if so minded.

Actually, Farage hasn't shaken up the European Parliament. It could be that a victory for anti-EU forces in this week's elections may bring about upheaval. Some estimates say up to half could come from anti-EU parties. But they haven't won so far.

What Farage has done much more effectively is shake up his own country. That's what really inspires people like Daly. They see how he's used Brussels to rise to national prominence, and wonder: Why not us too?

The difference is that people, whether they love him or loathe him, know what Farage stands for, but they'd be hard pressed to say what the left in Ireland stands for when it comes to Europe. It is still pretending that it can make the EU some radical force against globalism and neo-liberalism, which is, well, let's be polite and just say silly.

Voting for those who love the EU, or for those who want to bring it down, makes sense. Voting for candidates who just want the seats so that they can increase their profile back home makes none whatsoever.

Sunday Independent

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