Tomás Heneghan examines whether the rise of far-left politics is a more realistic choice for the electorates of Western Europe, and questions whether Sinn Féin's increase in popularity will see them rise to power in the next election.
The protest parties, as political elites would have us view them, are currently on the rise in Europe. Are they more than mere populist groupings? Do they have a real solution to European economic woes? The alternative, it seems, is the far-right. Is this branch of politics a more realistic choice for the electorates of Western Europe?
To focus on Ireland, we see parties such as Sinn Féin soaring upwards in the opinion polls, despite recent controversies. What Ireland views as a far-left party, however is mere left of centre in reality. Gerry Adams’s party holds the unique position of being in power in 6 of the counties on this island, while also holding a sizable chunk of opposition benches in the Republic. It is, in fact, an establishment party and no amount of false labels of socialism can change that.
Sinead O’Connor upon joining Sinn Féin suggested the party were one of socialism and by extension the so-called radical Left. O’Connor is mistaken. The far-left, Ireland’s socialist TDs, may be easily found if one moves the eyes to the back benches of opposition. Here sits three Socialist Party deputies, a Socialist Workers Party TD and United Left socialists, Joan Collins and Clare Daly. You might even add the likes of Catherine Murphy to the list of far-left representatives.
In May’s local and European Parliament elections we saw the sharp rise of Sinn Féin, yes, and the decline of the Labour Party. However the most notable for Ireland’s Left was the victories of Anti Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit candidates. Between the two groups alone almost 30 local council seats were filled. 
As well as this, a historic win for the Left went almost unrecognised when Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit won a seat on a Northern Ireland local council. This victory was seen within the ranks of Ireland’s socialists as a break-through in the decades old establishment party control in the North. If Sinn Féin was, in fact, part of the far-left, Carroll would not have been elected.
What does this rise of Independents, socialists and other Left political figures mean though? The simple reality is that many of these politicians have proven to be effective activists, a role they have failed to shake off despite their new roles as councillors and TDs. Unlike old-style Fianna Fáil politics, the people of Ireland no longer wish to vote for the local man or woman who fixes the potholes and holds constituency offices every week. People want an activist politician who stands with them on protests. In many cases the politicians also organise and coordinate many of the protests.
The Irish far-left stand as more than the tired standard expected of opposition politicians in the Dáil. While Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin play the political game and loudly criticise the Government from opposition benches, as Fine Gael and Labour once critiqued previous governments, the Left TDs dismiss the game entirely. The Left in Ireland has been holding the fight against austerity and right-wing social and economic policies for generations, with little thanks or recognition. As the Left now rises, Sinn Féin turns its attention to this area of protest and activism. Is it a populist party who can say all the right things to be elected? No doubt time will tell.
The alternative to the far-left is of course the far-right. When we speak of the far-right, we must keep in mind we speak in terms of social policies. Economically speaking, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are far-right. One could even argue Sinn Féin to be right of centre in terms of economics.
The far-right is marked by groups such as UKIP, France’s National Front and Greece’s Golden Dawn. These are the dominant anti-immigration, socially conservative groups of Western Europe. The mentality of the groups is to entice people to their way of thinking by generally making immigrants in particular the enemy. It is not the system of capitalism and business greed which dominates global politics, in their minds. The dominating thought is the old “immigrants have stolen our jobs” argument.
To understand the current state of European and Irish politics, you must first separate the social and economic stances of various left to right parties. Sinn Féin have achieved something extraordinary in this. The party has generally avoided social issues and has instead attacked the economic policies of the Republic’s governments. Do we know where they stand on LGBT rights? Do we know where the party stands on abortion? What about immigration? No is the most accurate answer here. While holding policies on LGBT rights in the Republic for example, the party fails to progress the very same rights in its Northern position of power.
It now becomes a waiting game until the next general election. Will Sinn Féin rise to hold the reins of power in the Republic for 1916 commemorations? Will the far-left parties and independents see a jump in support? Will Ireland’s far-right gain traction? One thing is certain, Ireland’s political landscape is changing as it never has before and it now becomes anyone’s game to win. We may well soon enter a period of political instability of rainbow coalitions or even a full-blown Marxist revolution - Anything seems possible now.

Photo: Sinn Féin/ Flickr