How trade unions helped lay the foundations for a tectonic shift in Irish politics

The Irish political landscape has just undergone what can only be described as a tectonic shift. After a century of politics dominated by two centre-right parties, voters in the 2020 general elections held on 8 February opted for change. A year on from two major trade union campaigns on healthcare and housing, it is these two issues that dominated political debates in the build up to election day.

While it wasn’t the sole victor of the shift left, Sinn Féin is undoubtably the big winner of the election. Shedding the codes of its troubled past, it campaigned on a platform of progressive change. Their “giving workers and families a break” tagline captured its renewed vision yet is conventional enough to be inserted into left campaigns across the world.

So, why did this message resonate with voters so strongly? While there were undoubtably numerous factors at play, it is clear that the hard work unions had put in to elevate bread and butter issues in the public debate was determining.

With a lauded Brexit performance still fresh in people’s minds and brute economic indicators showing well, ruling centre-right party Fine Gael called the snap election with what it may have considered a decent hand. Had it been able to frame the political discourse around these issues, it would no doubt have escaped such a scathing outcome.

Rather than headline-catching Brexit or GDP figures however, the build-up to the election was dominated by two issues: housing and healthcare. Both had been targeted by the government’s austerity cuts, and both had been the focus of highly visible trade union campaigns over the past couple of years.

Following funding cuts to healthcare, medical staff shortages have been a recurrent and growing problem, particularly in the public sector of Ireland’s two-tier healthcare system. Both patients, who face lengthy waiting lists, and healthcare staff, who are overstretched, are paying the price. When it inevitably came to breaking point, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) led the #StandWithNursesandMidwives campaign.

Placing public interest demands for safe staffing at the top of their demands, nurses and midwives, overwhelmingly women, took centre stage to tell their stories. This approach won them significant press coverage which echoed the personal testimonies of these care workers. Following an outpouring of public support, including from patients, they rapidly won an agreement that featured significant initial fixes. However, the ideologically driven reluctance to commit to a fully operational public healthcare system had been exposed in passionate terms.

ICTU raises the roof

Meanwhile, another symptom of the government’s GDP-obsessed approach gripped working people, this time in their homes. As Leilani Farha the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing put it: “This expanding role and unprecedented dominance of unregulated financial markets and corporations in the housing sector is now generally referred to as the ‘financialization of housing’ and it is having devastating consequences for tenants. Contrary to international human rights obligations, investment in housing in the Republic of Ireland has disconnected housing from its core social purpose of providing people with a place to live in with security and dignity.”

Aiming to boost ephemeral ‘growth’ at all costs, the government allowed speculative investment to flood the property market. Homeownership took a dive and rents skyrocketed, with Dublin now among the most expensive places to rent in the world. In too many cases, people simply could not keep up and the number of homeless families increased by 280 per cent since December 2014. More than one in three people in emergency accommodation today is a child.

Together with a broad coalition of civil society movements, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) launched Raise the Roof, a campaign to give visibility to the housing and homelessness crises. Together, the impressive groundwork of homelessness organisations and the campaigning and mobilising might of the likes of SIPTU and Mandate trade unions brought homelessness to the fore of Irish public attention. With the height of this campaign in May 2019, it too was still fresh in people’s mind when election time came around.

Elections can be complicated for trade unions. Balancing political openness, broad political affiliation of members and clear policy demands means that unions must juggle many balls at the same time at a decisive moment.

The reality is that the immediate build up to an election is dominated by parties. Rather than vying for space in the middle of a saturated election campaign, the Irish election suggests that trade unions can affect political change by putting in the hard slog ahead of time to lay the foundations. Key elements to successfully doing so are giving a human face to the problems and aspirations of workers, pushing public interest demands that resonate throughout society, building civil society alliances and getting the timing right.

Deep tides of dissatisfaction are stirring everywhere. They have the power to move continents. Trade unions are crucial to steering this powerful energy to affect progressive political change: the Irish election is a fine example of this.