It was meant to be the day on which normal service was resumed. Having followed the path of economic virtue mapped out by Draghi, Merkel and the IMF, Ireland’s governing parties would reap the rewards at the ballot box. Failing that, a strong performance by Fianna Fáil would show that the inherent conservatism of the Irish people had reasserted itself, as they lurched from one centre-right party to another and back again.
Somebody neglected to tell the voters. Fine Gael and Labour were clobbered unmercifully, their combined share of the vote declining from 55.5 per cent in 2011 to 27.6 per cent this time round, with Labour taking the hardest blow: its best ever result in an Irish election followed by one of its worst. Some pundits did their best to spin the outcome as a triumph for Fianna Fáil, but that only shows how far the party has sunk in recent years. Two by-elections lost and one MEP out of 11: this is not the stuff triumphs are made of. At any other time in the last eight decades, Fianna Fáil’s performance would have been considered disastrous.
Sinn Féin had its best result in almost a century. The party has been bracketed with UKIP and the Front National, but it has more in common with the SNP or Catalonia’s Republican Left (one of its new councillors, Edmond Lukusa, will be Dublin’s first black public representative). Sinn Féin has won support south of the border with an old-school social-democratic programme, of the kind long relinquished by Europe’s centre-left parties. Further off the beaten path, a far-left candidate won the Dublin West by-election — it must be the only constituency in Europe with not one but two Trotskyist MPs — and Trotskyists got almost as many first-preference votes as Fine Gael in the capital’s Euro poll. The rest of the anti-establishment vote was hoovered up by independents of all kinds, from uncompromising radicals to candidates who broke with the mainstream parties to save their skins.
None of this means that a revolution is just around the corner. Sinn Féin has left the door open to a coalition with one of the conservative parties – most likely Fianna Fáil – if the numbers add up next time round; that would pose as much of a threat to the status quo as the Sinn Féin-DUP coalition in Belfast (i.e. none at all). The Marxist groups are still at each other’s throats and ran competing candidates in Dublin, managing to convert 12.4 per cent of the vote and one MEP into 15.3 per cent and none. All the same, people have started to kick back after six torrid years – and, for now at least, they’re kicking up not down.
Irish newspaper columnists love to quote those lines from ‘The Second Coming’ about things falling apart and centres which cannot hold. Like Yeats, they often find themselves ‘urging the despotic rule of the educated classes as the only end to our troubles’, and their definition of the centre ground lies well to the right of Thatcher. They’ve been taking solace in the thought that new European rules will prevent any future government from yielding to pressure from below for a change of economic policy. John Bruton, the former Taoiseach and current mouthpiece for the financial services industry, said a couple of days after the vote that Ireland will have to endure another ten years of austerity, with all the serenity of a man who need never face the electorate again. Bruton may be tactless, but he isn’t stupid, and his vision of a balanced budget stamping on a human face – forever – probably has more substance behind it than all the talk of green shoots and corners being turned.