The victory of the Labour Party’s Michael D Higgins in Ireland’s presidential election should be welcomed.
The presidential office is largely symbolic, but Higgins, a poet and long-time anti-war activist, is preferable to both the Fianna Fail-backed businessman and the former sectarian paramilitary godfather who took second and third place.
Let’s not rejoice in the personalised pageantry of bourgeois politics, rather assess what this development might mean.
The election of Higgins and the pitiful 6.4% scored by Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell may not be what it appears to be: a rejection of the dominant partner in the Fine Gael/ Labour coalition government.
Mitchell was universally regarded as a weak candidate. In a Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitudes poll published in early September, Fine Gael did well, polling 44%, as compared with a mere 12% for Labour.
Mitchell was evidently less popular than Fine Gael; and Higgins seems to be much more popular than his beleaguered party, which, after gaining popularity in opposition to the previous Fianna Fail government, is now bearing the brunt of being in the coalition government.
The presidential election reminds us of the sheer inadequacy of bourgeois republican institutions. Of course, we defend existing democratic rights and freedoms because they were hard won by our class and provide vital breathing space to organise. But we must also expand the limits of democracy as a step on the road to socialism.
Trotsky, writing in 1934 about France, argued that socialists should “draw inspiration from the ideas and methods not of the Third Republic but of the Convention of 1793”. In other words, the presidency should be abolished and “deputies would be elected on the basis of local assemblies, constantly revocable by their constituents, and would receive the salary of a skilled worker.”
In the context of a coalition government in Ireland carrying out the programme of the IMF and the European Central Bank, Trotsky’s warnings to social democratic workers have particular resonance. “It is not enough to defend democracy,” he wrote; “democracy must be regained” from the dominance of finance capital.
The election of Higgins and of his colleague Patrick Nulty in the Dublin West by-election, runs the risk of sowing illusions among Labour Party activists and supporters about the true state of their party. It may be over four years until the next general election, with the crisis of capitalism showing no signs of abating. If the class struggle intensifies over the next period, Labour Party celebrations may prove to be short-lived.
If Labour is to survive, it must break its links with Fine Gael and repudiate the austerity agenda.
Militant activists inside Labour must fight for a programme of working-class independent politics; their programme should be one of fighting for a workers’ government based on and accountable to the workers’ movement.