Ireland’s New Political Order
When Michael Noonan, the finance minister in Ireland’s outgoing Fine Gael-Labour coalition, said that ‘party allegiances are reverting back to what was the norm over the years,’ he might as well have been clicking his heels together and murmuring ‘there’s no place like home.’ The 2016 general election marked another stage in the disruption of the old political order, leaving Irish politics more fragmented and unpredictable than ever before.
In the last pre-crisis election, in 2007, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil won 69 per cent of the vote between them. During the last prolonged recession, in the 1980s, the two centre-right parties averaged 79 per cent across five general elections. This time, their combined support dipped below 50 per cent. There is still a secure conservative majority in the new parliament, which will meet on 10 March, but only if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil reach an accommodation.
That much was predicted by the opinion polls over the last year: what is surprising is the balance between the two parties. Towards the end of 2015, Fine Gael had opened up a clear lead over its rivals and was polling in the low thirties; Fianna Fáil looked set to trail around ten points behind them. In the course of February’s campaign, however, Fine Gael slipped back and Fianna Fáil mounted a late surge, leaving the pair almost neck-and-neck. The vote share of the two government parties (Fine Gael and Labour) fell by 23 per cent in total.
It wasn’t meant to happen this way: after all the good news stories about Ireland’s economic recovery, a grateful electorate was supposed to re-elect Enda Kenny, the most obliging politician Angela Merkel and Mario Draghi could hope to encounter. Observers were quick to blame an excessively right-wing election platform, crafted with the help of the British Tories and a late endorsement of Kenny’s ‘long-term economic plan’ by David Cameron. Fianna Fáil’s leader, Micheál Martin, dusted off the centre-left image that was once so important for his party, promising to prioritise investment in public services over tax cuts for the upper middle class. Fianna Fáil had clung on to 17.5 per cent of the vote in 2011, and added 7 per cent to that figure this time. But the scale of its recovery should not be exaggerated: this was still the second-worst performance in the party’s history.
With Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil evenly matched, the calculus behind any ‘grand coalition’ deal has shifted. Fianna Fáil may feel more confident about entering government from a position of strength, and demand a rotating premiership; on the other hand, it may prefer a Fine Gael-led minority administration and push for a second election in the near future if the polls are looking good. Editorials were quick to remind both parties of their duties. The Irish Independent said they were ‘honour-bound to explore all possibilities and elevate the best interests of the country above party priorities’; the Irish Examiner let a more tremulous note creep in:
The two old parties of power must work out how they can form an effective partnership to take this country forward or we can surrender this country to socialist extremists whose policies would set us back decades, wreck our economy, and the social fabric it sustains.
Fortunately for the Examiner and the ‘social fabric’ it treasures, a substantial left-wing vote was distributed among a range of parties who were in no position to offer an alternative government. Within weeks of the 2011 election, Labour tore up the manifesto on which it had won its highest ever share of the vote, and jumped into bed with Fine Gael. Stephen Collins, the political editor of the Irish Times, has spent the past few years telling Labour ministers that it was their duty to implement the Troika’s austerity programme to the letter, and that voters would reward them for their sense of responsibility. In his post-election analysis, with Labour having lost 30 of its 37 seats, Collins acknowledged that ‘it would probably have emerged as the biggest party by now’ if it had stayed in opposition after 2011: ‘Labour’s big problem was that it was blamed for breaking faith with the people who had voted for it’ – not surprisingly, since it did break faith with them.
Sinn Féin picked up the baton discarded by Labour and got its best result since the 1920s, although its vote was still lower than the opinion polls had predicted. It may be time for Gerry Adams to step back in favour of a younger, less polarising generation of Sinn Féin politicians. The hard-left People Before Profit/Anti-Austerity Alliance also did well, and the Greens and the newly formed Social Democrats picked up some of the old Labour electorate.
Five years ago, the late Peter Mair identified ‘a growing divide in European party systems between parties which claim to represent, but don’t deliver, and those which deliver, but are no longer seen to represent’. The description didn’t really apply to Ireland at the time, but it certainly does now. The most important division in Irish politics is between a conservative establishment, down but not out, and a fragmented left-wing opposition whose parts have come a long way since 2008, but have some distance to go before they can exercise real power.