Ireland goes to polls amid post-crisis uncertainty
By Shona Murray
Ireland goes to the polls on Friday (26 February) in the country’s first general election since completing the €85 billion EU-IMF bailout progamme it received in late 2010. Amid doubts about the true state of Irish society, the result is proving hard to call.
Those dark and traumatic days the Irish want to leave behind, and on paper, economic projections for the Irish state say they will able to do just that.
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According to the Irish Central Bank, a “convincing recovery” is under way with the bank projecting growth of close to 5 percent for 2016, albeit with significant risks rising from the turbulence in international stock markets.
But in practice, and for candidates and voters alike, the question is whether the so-called recovery is being distributed fairly amongst everyone. In the run up to Friday’s vote, the Irish public has had plenty to think about when considering this question.
The coalition in power, led by prime minister Enda Kenny's Fine Gael, a centre-right party supported by its junior partner, Labour, claims it should be re-elected based on its apparent economic successes of the last 5 years, and that a vote for them is a vote to “keep the recovery going”.
On the face of it, the latest unemployment figures from January, 8.8 percent, support this line and show a sizeable shift from peak unemployment of 15.2 percent recorded in January 2012 after the government took power.
The coalition also boasts a net job creation figure of 135,000 jobs during its tenure, in contrast to a low in 2009 when the number of people working in the state fell by 160,000 in one year alone.
Masking the true nature of the unemployment problem, however, are the mass emigration figures for young, well-educated members of the workforce, who moved to more auspicious economies in Canada, Australia, the US as well as London.
During peak emigration in 2013, nearly 1,000 Irish people left every week according to The Central Statistics Office; over 40,000 of these were people aged 24-44. In addition, the coalition's job creation figures include thousands of part-time jobs and state-sponsored internship schemes.
The timing of this year’s election is also significant. It chimes with the centenary of the 1916 ‘Easter Rising’ when Republican forces led a rebellion against the British occupation which eventually led to the creation of the Irish State in 1922.
The next Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland will lead the country in commemoration of the 1916 Rising and thereby cast themselves in an honourable light in Irish history.
The greatest threat to the current coalition lies not only with a resurgent Fianna Fail – the party in power for 12 years prior to the country’s economic collapse and whose recent legacy in politics remains that of being at the helm during the destruction of the once revered Celtic Tiger economy -, but also a coalition of left-wing parties including Sinn Fein – the former political wing of the IRA.
This bulky caucus includes an alliance of groups such as the AAA (Anti-Austerity Alliance) and the PBP (People before Profit), whose raison d'etre has been to oppose the austerity measures imposed on consecutive budgets in conjunction with the troika during Ireland’s bailout.
Sinn Fein is now on over 15 percent of the vote according to the results of the last 'Red C' opinion poll on the campaign issued on Tuesday (23 February). The AAA/PBP are showing at just over 5 percent.
Popularity at its lowest
Analysing the rest of the results, many commentators see only a hung parliament on the horizon. It shows the Labour Party now on 7 percent of the vote – a major fall from grace considering it entered government on its highest ever share, 19.2 per cent with a record 37 seats.
Labour says it is unfairly receiving the majority of the blame for some of the unpopular measures the government took during straitened economic times, and says its finest hour - demanding a referendum which successfully delivered equal marriage rights for LGBT people as part of its programme for government - would never have happened had it not been for their influence.
Fine Gael’s popularity has also fallen; it is currently on 30 percent after a high of 36 when it entered government with 76 seats. Fianna Fail has recovered hugely since its almost complete collapse in the last election of 2011 in which it lost 58 seats, dropping from 78 to 20 and falling to a meagre 17 percent of the vote - the lowest in their history by a considerable distance.
In the last three weeks, voters have been subjected to three largely underwhelming leaders’ debates and a particularly long-lead up time in anticipation of the polling date. Alongside confusing economic forecasting and typical ‘auction politics’ emanating from all parties, it’s led to an overriding sense of election fatigue.
The only matter to shake the discussion towards less mundane issues has been the impact of two major gangland assassinations in the space of three days, leading at one point for calls by leader of the right-wing ‘Renua Ireland’ party (2 percent) Lucinda Creighton to call for the campaign to be suspended.
The first of the brutal attacks was particularly audacious and chilling. It occurred during broad daylight when up to six men, most of who were wearing paramilitary clothes and armed with AK-47’s, the other dressed as a woman and wearing a wig, burst into a conference room in a Dublin hotel and shot their target, a well-known, 34-year old gangland figure, David Byrne. They wounded two others in the process.
The second incident was an expected retaliatory killing of the brother of the rival gang member three days later. The killings and the ostentatious and insolent nature of the funeral of David Byrne sparked widespread angst and fury at the lack of control the coalition appeared to have on the social aspects of being in government, particularly tackling organised crime.
It also highlighted the harmful impact of austerity on society and communities, given how police resources had been significantly reduced during the economic crash, with a ban on the recruitment of new members of the force and the closure of the police training centre (just recently reopened) resulting in a depletion of morale in the force, which was at a “dangerously low” level according to the AGSI – the Irish police force representatives organisation.
This mood shift was bad for all parties, drawing public opinion into a deeper air of despair towards politics as usual, in particular for Sinn Fein, as the nature of the killings was a stark reminder of the days of incorrigible para-militarism, with which Sinn Fein’s roots are heavily entangled.