Fianna Fáil collapses. Labour slips up. Fine Gael triumphs. Meanwhile, it’s not just Gerry Adams who’s fuzzy on economics Elaine Byrne in the Guardian 23 February 2011
The word “unprecedented” has lost all force in Ireland. The general election this Friday is teeming with so many unparalleled moments that even “historic” now seems like a hackneyed term. A fundamental realignment of Irish politics is under way. Before next weekend is out, Ireland will witness the largest turnover in seats and personnel since independence was achieved in 1922.
Fianna Fáil, the party of government for 61 of the last 79 years, has seen an absolute collapse in its support. At the last election in 2007, the party, then led by Bertie Ahern, almost secured an overall majority under the proportional system Ireland uses, with 41% of the vote. The latest Irish Times poll shows just 16% support for Fianna Fáil, now led by Micheál Martin following Brian Cowen’s resignation in January. This would translate to its lowest vote share ever.
The momentum has been firmly behind the main opposition party, Fine Gael, since the IMF came to Dublin last November. Support for it stands at 38% and the party may have the option, for the first time in its history, of leading a minority government with the support of like-minded independents. Enda Kenny, now certain to be the next prime minister, has, however, repeatedly insisted that a “strong and stable government” is imperative given the current economic conditions. That can perhaps be taken as code that there’s a preference for a coalition with Labour.
The story of the election is that of the decline of the left. When Labour raced ahead of Fine Gael last summer with 32% in the opinion polls, Fine Gael panicked and Kenny had to endure a vote of confidence in his leadership. Now at just 19%, Labour’s “Gilmore for Taoiseach” election posters seem a little silly.
Sinn Féin, standing at 11% in the polls, may yet record its best performance in the Republic. Gerry Adams will comfortably win a seat in the next parliament, although he has not done his party any favours in media interviews and his knowledge of southern economic policies has come under some scrutiny. The Green party, which pulled out as junior coalition partner in January, will be hoping against hope that the predictions of an electoral wipeout are not accurate.
Yet another unique feature of this election campaign is the record number of independent candidates. Remarkably, 41% of all declared candidates are independents. Many of these are left-leaning and their entry to the electoral race reflects the deep sense of anger and distrust that many Irish people feel towards established political parties. Independents, at 16% in the latest poll, will probably constitute the biggest non-party vote ever. At the outset of the campaign three weeks ago, undecided voters made up almost a third of the electorate, and may prove crucial if turnout is high.
So, apparently this is the election of a generation. The hyperbole suggests that the response to the loss of economic sovereignty is a party system rocked to its core. Nonetheless, the largely predetermined nature of the election outcome has translated into a dull and boring campaign. Despite four long leaders’ debates and intensive electioneering, there has been no banana skins or Gordon Brown type “bigoted woman” gaffes.
The election has been unconventional by Irish standards, with a focus on policies rather than personalities and an electorate engaged in national rather than local issues.
Fine Gael and the British Conservatives have developed close ties since initial meetings between Kenny and David Cameron in 2007. It is not surprising that Fine Gael’s five-point plan has many echoes of Tory policies. Promises not to increase income taxes but to introduce a “smaller, better government” because the “public sector is too large, too inefficient and too expensive” represent significant policy differences to Labour.
The potential centre-right and centre-left coalition partners also have separate approaches to resolving the banking crisis, the time frame for reining in the budget deficit and creating jobs for Ireland’s 13.4% unemployed. Issues of healthcare, debt relief for mortgage holders and political reform also dominate.
All this, however, is a proxy for meaningful debate on the transfer of €100bn in private banking debt into public ownership.
The permanent cycle of political crises in Ireland has overshadowed how unsustainable the burden of this debt is. The political parties have focused on a renegotiation of the IMF/ECB interest rate and have been at best fuzzy on restructuring senior debt and burden sharing – an issue of keen interest to Cameron given that Irish banks owe €107bn to British banks.
Things will get much worse before they get better. The Irish Central Bank, for instance, recently revealed that depositors had withdrawn €40bn from Irish banks in December alone.
This election may well be unprecedented but there are many more unprecedented events yet to come.