What's behind the split on Ireland's left?

Is there any hope of unity on the left in Ireland?

The politics of old are failing, the established order that has so long led Ireland has seldom, if ever, looked weaker.

Mass protest on a scale never before seen in the country lives fresh in the memory – the price paid by the weakest for austerity has led to a palpable anger among the electorate that Ireland has never before felt.

And yet, Ireland’s unbroken record of centre-right led governments looks almost guaranteed to continue for at least one further term.

The trade unions have conceded an opportunity was lost by the left to coalesce into a credible, potentially governing faction.

Listen: Newstalk Breakfast: The split on Ireland's left

Those on the opposition benches label Labour as the party that failed and betrayed the people who looked to it for protection – the Labour party label the rest of the left as populists and preachers, but far from aware of the realities of practical governing.

Tánaiste Joan Burton said of the rest of the left: “We have a whole series of populist and supposedly left wing politicians whose main campaign appears to be to have a debate about how left wing or how populist they all can be, but what they all shy away form is any kind of decision making.”

To debate the split on Ireland’s left Newstalk Breakfast welcomed Labour TD Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and candidate for Wexford, and Richard Boyd-Barrett TD, of AAA-PBP and candidate for Dun Laoghaire.

Rejecting the suggestion that his party have just shouted from the sidelines, Boyd-Barret pointed to the mass support for the Right2Change moment - which saw a number of left-wing groups band together to fight water charges, and where the People Before Profit party were “leading very substantial campaigns on the ground, against unfair measures this government has brought in, like the property tax, like the water tax,” he said.

This was in “stark contrast” to Labour’s record in government, he said.

“They’ve helped promote a race to the bottom in terms of pay and conditions for workers, they’ve created the worse housing problem in the history of the state ... and they completely failed to burn bondholders or to redistribute wealth in any way,” he added.

Mr Howlin rejected the claim his party had failed those it was traditionally supposed ot protect and support, saying that they instead had “rolled up their sleeves” to effect real change, rather than shout from the sidelines, as he argues the opposition have done.

He a went on to say that that marriage equality and reducing the burden of USC were achievements of Labour in government.

“It’s a difference between rolling up your sleeves and doing and shouting about it. If you want to make change it’s much harder, much tougher to roll up your sleeves and make a real difference”

The “core theme” of the rest of the left, Howlin claimed, “is to be popular and populist.”

“Brendan can bandy around all the statistics he likes,” Boyd-Barrett replied.

“But it’s clear that people out there are making their judgment and they are moving beyond the labour party. The people that voted for labour looking for protection have been abandoned and have suffered.”

“In all the years that Brendan says there was no money he went along with paying seven or eight billion euro out to bondholders for an odious debt that was not the debt of the people of this country.

“Brendan made the decision to pay that money to bondholders, despite the fact that he and his party had said they would not do that prior to the last election,” Boyd-Barrett said.

Howlin said the payment of bondholders was the only practical choice.

“What Richard is saying is that we should have defaulted on our national debt, as if that was something you could do without a consequence, without a disastrous consequence,” he said.

“We’d be like Argentina, that 15 years after default is stills struggling trying to make basic payments there. Countries that want investment don’t default,” he added.

On the possibility of doing a deal with other left wing parties, including Sinn Féin, Boyd-Barrett said. The inability of left wing parties to combine effectively to lead government

“We will talk to others on the left who are genuinely committed to lifting the burden of austerity,” Boyd-Barrett said.

This “tragically” excluded Labour, however, as one of the parties “whose records show they are clearly dedicated to protecting the golden circle in this country – FF, FG and now tragically the Labour party,” he said.

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