Irish general election; another austerity government to fall?

This week the Irish electorate are set to go to the ballot box and elect a new government. Elections are set for Friday 26th February, and look set to be a hard fought battle yet again between the current pro-austerity EPP government under Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and his Fine Gael party, and the rising forces of anti-austerity that have endured 5 years of Sparpolitik. According to a recent poll, it seems like whilst the ruling Fine Gael party will gain the largest vote share, they will not win a majority and therefore will lose their ability to govern. Will the Oireachtas Éireann suffer the fate of the Cortes Generales?

The Polls

The FT reports that whilst PM Kenny’s Fine Gael was riding high in the polls last month, on the back of their managing of the Irish recovery, that wave has now dried up. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition which has been ruling since 2011 is, according to the FT, 15 seats short of a majority in the Dáil Éireann. According to The Irish Times, which made a report on an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll on Sunday, the Irish Labour Party is at 6%, losing a point from the beginning of the month. Fine Gael (FG) themselves, according to the poll, have not moved, remaining at 28%, whereas their major rivals, Fianna Fáil (FF) is up 2 points, now at 23% overall. Both the Irish Times and the FT report that Independents have been the main beneficiaries of the fall in support of the other parties, now at somewhere between 28% and 30%. The major party on the left, Sinn Féin (SF), is down to 15%, losing 4 points and sitting at its lowest rating for 4 years, The Irish Times reports.

The FT puts the lack of momentum that Fine Gael is suffering from to the negative campaign that Enda Kenny is running – if we fall out of power then we’ll be in the same situation as Greece. The Irish Times poll suggests that this message of keeping the recovery going has been exceptionally ineffective in gaining more votes, and the leading party in the coalition has lost its towering lead it held during November. Meanwhile, FG’s major challenger FF has moved back into a position to challenge the governing party, gaining 4 points from last November. FF was routed in the 2011 election, however is currently under the leadership of Micheál Martin, who is widely seen as an exceptional debater. Speaking on Irish Times Inside Politics, Martin said “the people want to change the government”. The FT seems to concur, writing on Sunday that:

“A month ago, it looked as if Ireland would buck the trend among crisis-hit eurozone countries by giving its incumbent government a fair shot at being re-elected. After Friday, the country could instead face a post-election scenario as indecisive as that of Spain.”

The real question here is what the Irish people want a change to, because whilst FG are likely to lose their majority, a clear replacement, like in Spain, seems to be out of site. Ireland’s government is used to coalitions, however it currently doesn’t look like a clear replacement of the FG-Labour coalition will appear. On the other hand, unlike in Spain, Ireland’s far-left movement, SF, doesn’t look like its going to present in the same way Podemos did last December, or SYRIZA did earlier in January 2015.

A new force in Irish politics

The FT wrote on Sunday that “While a strong force in Ireland against austerity, its history could prevent further progress”, in an article covering SF, and their appeal to the wider public. According to the article, over the past 20 years, SF has been a pariah party, which had no chance of governing, or even making a difference in the Dáil. SF advocates for a united Ireland, campaigns north of the border in the Northern Irish elections, has been tied to the IRA, as well as involvement in the 1960s-90s Troubles. However more recently, SF has emerged as one of the most dynamic forces in Irish politics, and has taken up the banner of the Irish left, campaigning for improved healthcare, anti-austerity, and a better deal for Irish citizens. According to polls, SF is on course to double its vote from the 2011 elections, although in the recent Irish Times poll, this lead has dropped somewhat. This is mainly because of SF’s tying in the election campaign to the subject of the Irish Special Criminal Court, and its abolition which SF advocates for. This issue has become inflammatory in recent weeks with the re-emergence in the public eye of gangland violence, which led to two brutal murders in Dublin recently. This had led people to believe the Special Criminal Court to be necessary, and SF’s lack of suggestions for a replacement, as well as the naming of some of its figures in a case the Court dealt with in 1983, regarding the murder of a prison officer, Brian Stack. Nevertheless, the Court has been criticised by the UN, because it has no jury and decisions are made by majority vote, with three sitting judges. It is not therefore in the spirit of modern law, and was formed in 1972 in the wake of the beginning of the Troubles to deal with terrorism and serious organised crime.

Because of these polarising credentials, SF has not been able to fully ride on the back of anti-austerity anger which has grown since the FG government’s election in 2011, and which all the major parties are to some extent tainted with. The FT has written that SF is not a protest movement, nor another left-wing populist party; its challenge against Sparpolitik has been a matter of coincidence more than anything else. In fact, SF are one of Europe’s oldest parties, founded in 1905 and taking part in the 1916 Easter Rising, which began the revolution against British rule in Ireland. SF not only encouraged independent Irish sentiment before 1916, but also campaigned for an Irish culture distinct from British culture. With 2016 being the centenary year for the 1916 Easter Rising, SF’s slogan has been that “It’s time for a new Rising”.

Regardless of whether SF capitalise on the resentment of austerity, or whether they will continue to have the aura of toxicity and violence surround them as they have in the past, they certainly won’t make enough gains in the next week to form a majority in the Dáil. However they could form a powerful faction which will have to be accepted and negotiated with by the other parties. Furthermore, a distinction between Ireland and Spain is the fact that this is the first time Spain’s Parliament has been so divided and demanded consensus and coalition between the Spanish parties. Meanwhile, Ireland is far more comfortable in consensus and coalition politics, which should mean that the Oireachtas Éireann doesn’t become so paralysed as Spain’s Cortes has been since December.


Sources: FT, The Irish Times


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