Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Opinion

Ireland's politics on the brink of a seismic shift

  • A Fine Gael-Labour coalition is probably the likeliest outcome of the Irish elections (Photo: Annie in Beziers)

As polling day arrives (25 February) in Ireland there is certainty about only one thing – Fianna Fail, the party of Eamon De Valera, which has governed for 61 of the last 79 years, is going to suffer the worst electoral defeat in its history.

Founded by De Valera as a response to the partition of Ireland by the 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty, every Fianna Fail leader except its current leader Micheal Martin has been Taoiseach. Languishing on 14% in the polls, well behind the Labour party and only marginally ahead of a resurgent Sinn Fein, even in its traditional strongholds in County Cork it is going to take a severe beating.

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Fianna Fail's trouncing has long been inevitable as the country's debt ballooned following the financial crisis, while its budget deficit grew to a whopping 36 percent following the collapse of its banking sector in November 2010 and subsequent €80bn bail-out by the EU.

Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen was a beleaguered figure throughout 2009 and 2010 and stood down last month after Martin challenged him for the party leadership. Nonetheless, while the government is tired and discredited Fianna Fail's position as the 'natural party of government' is as distinctive in the Republic as the Catholic Church.

So who will step into the breach? Fianna Fail's traditional rivals Fine Gael, a party with a more free-market approach than Fianna Fail's essentially ideology-free pragmatic politics, is on around 35 percent and likely to win 70-75 seats in the Dail, a performance that would see it comfortably the largest party but short of a majority. While Cowen's party had introduced a second brutal austerity budget in a bid to cut Ireland's deficit, Fine Gael and their leader, Enda Kenny, are offering similar but even harsher tasting medicine.

On the other side, the Labour party is expecting to perform well, although its poll ratings have fallen from around 30 percent to 20 percent over the last six months. Even so, if they can win 40 seats and beat Fianna Fail into third place, it will be the party's best performance since partition.

With Fianna Fail so unpopular and discredited as to make a coalition with Fine Gael almost unthinkable, Labour could well find itself as king-maker – balancing the right-wing instincts of Fine Gael to create a more centrist government. Moreover, in Eamon Gilmore, Labour have the most popular leader in Irish politics. They have campaigned on a ticket to re-negotiate the terms of the bail-out, which carried very high interest rates of around seven percent, and to reduce Ireland's budget deficit to three percent by 2016 rather than the 2014 promised by Fine Gael.

A Fine Gael-Labour coalition is probably the likeliest outcome, despite their distinct ideological differences. At a time of massive political and economic upheaval, stability is what the Irish people will probably vote for. A Fine Gael-Labour government would have a commanding majority in the Dail, while Labour's presence would calm the concerns of those who fear that Fine Gael are promising more economic and social hardship than necessary.

However, one of the shocks of the election is expected to be the return to prominence of Sinn Fein in the Irish Republic's politics. Standing on just over 10 percent, Sinn Fein are expecting their best performance in the Dail since the end of British rule.

Gerry Adams, the former IRA leader and grand old man of Northern Irish politics, will almost certainly become an MP in the Republic rather than the north of Ireland. Meanwhile, the Green party, long-time coalition partners with Fianna Fail are looking at the possibility of being completely wiped out.

The question is whether this election marks a seismic shift in Irish politics. Will it usher in a new era where politics is dominated by Fine Gael and Labour representing the mainstream right and left, or will the political machine that is Fianna Fail be able to recover quickly?

If its core vote holds up in a time of turmoil, the Fianna Fail machine may yet survive. Meanwhile, though they have always been the second party in Irish politics, Fine Gael governments have not got a great track record in government. If they are put in the position of governing alone in a time of crisis, and enact more savage cuts to public spending and wages, their popularity will plummet just as Fianna Fail's has.

Ben Fox is a political adviser to the Socialists and Democrats group's vice-chairman of the European Parliament's economic and monetary affairs committee.

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