Establishment parties face challenges on all sides.
On paper, Ireland is booming. Growth last year was 7 percent, aided by a weak euro that helped Irish exports. Unemployment is at its lowest level since the economic crash that mortally wounded the ‘Celtic Tiger.’ Once more the drinks are flowing in the upmarket bars and bistros of Dublin.
But elsewhere in this nation of 4.5 million, the mood is far less buoyant. Beyond Dublin’s shimmering skyline, smaller rural towns are pockmarked by empty shopping streets and unfinished ‘ghost’ housing estates left behind by Ireland’s disastrous, debt-fueled property boom. Many recently-created jobs are low-skilled and poorly paid. Almost 8 in 10 believe the gap between the richest and the poorest in Irish society is widening.
On Friday, Ireland heads to the polls, with the gap between the haves and have-nots very much at the forefront of political debate.
“Let’s keep the recovery going” has been the campaign mantra of the center-right Fine Gael, the largest party in a coalition that has governed since 2011. Enda Kenny — Ireland’s genial, if unemotional, 64-year-old Taoiseach or prime minister — prides himself on a close bond with the electorate. But an International Monetary Fund bailout and years of punishing austerity mean many voters have yet to feel the much-vaunted economic revival.
Polls point to a Fine Gael win on Friday, but the party is expected to fall far short of overall victory.
“While the situation has improved economically it is still very much a top line improvement. The figures and indicators have shown a strong turnaround but the actual impact on everyday lives is still fairly minimal,” said Irish political commentator Johnny Fallon.
Fine Gael has struggled to build momentum since dissolving the Irish parliament earlier this month. A pledge to introduce tax reductions and spending increases worth €12 billion in the course of the next parliament was heavily criticized.
Opposition parties have been the main beneficiaries in a lackluster campaign that has largely failed to engage a jaded electorate. Fianna Fáil, the dominant force in Irish politics since the foundation of the state almost a century ago, has seen support steadily climb. Leader Micheál Martin’s calls for a more balanced recovery appear to have struck a chord with Irish voters — despite many blaming the party for the 2008 economic collapse.
Ireland’s electoral system — single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies — makes predictions notoriously difficult. Last time out, Fine Gael won 76 seats on just over 36 percent of the vote; Labour, their eventual junior coalition partner, polled just two points ahead of Fianna Fáil but ended up with almost double the number of seats.
On Friday, Fianna Fáil hopes to double its 20 seats, while Labour is struggling simply to survive. The party leader, and deputy prime minister, Joan Burton, is among dozens of Labour MPs expected to lose their seats.
A century on, the fault lines opened up during the war of independence remain the major fissures in Irish politics.
Fine Gael is banking on a late swing to the incumbent, akin to the U.K. general election last May — the party has even taken advice from Conservative Party strategists. But with almost one in three voters saying they will back smaller independent parties and candidates — and with up to 20 percent expected to vote for the republicans Sinn Féin — the governing parties could find it very difficult to return with the 79 seats required for a majority. Not for the first time in Irish politics, lengthy post-election coalition negotiations are on the cards.
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This year is the centenary of a foundational moment in Irish history: the Easter Rising. In April 1916, a disparate group of nationalists, socialists and radicals stormed the General Post Office in Dublin and declared an Irish republic. The rebellion was short-lived and — at the time — poorly supported. But a brutal British retaliation saw a surge in support for independence, a hitherto marginal position in Irish politics. Within six years, 26 of Ireland’s counties had left the U.K. and a new Northern Irish state formed.
A century on, the fault lines opened up during the war of independence remain the major fissures in Irish politics. Fine Gael emerged from supporters of the treaty with the British that saw Ireland granted dominion status in 1922. Fianna Fáil was founded by one of the few Easter Rising leaders not to be executed, Eamon de Valera, who violently opposed the deal.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have plenty in common. Both are center-right parties with urban, pro-free market and rural, more economically and socially conservative wings. But the civil war history has made a deal between the two practically impossible. Both parties have actively distanced themselves from any talk of a “grand coalition,” fearing mutual destruction, particularly for the junior player, as is frequently the case in Irish politics.
Another echo from 1916 is Sinn Féin. The republican party — the name means “ourselves” or “we ourselves” — was founded in 1905 but reformulated in 1970 as the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, which fought a decades-long conflict against British rule in Northern Ireland. Led by veteran Belfast republican Gerry Adams and standing on an avowedly left-wing, anti-austerity platform, Sinn Féin is on course for its most successful parliamentary showing in the modern era. The party has said it will only go into coalition as the majority partner.
Despite the preponderance of parties that trace their genesis to the era of Irish independence, in many respects this election marks a shift away from civil war politics. Thirty years ago, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael attracted a combined vote of around 85 percent. That figure is likely to be less than 50 percent on Friday.
A plethora of smaller parties have emerged into the vacuum. Some, such as the Social Democrats and the right-wing Renua, are breakaways from established parties. Others are composites of smaller parties to the left, as well as a record number of independents. All are tapping into a palpable anger that belies the headline-grabbing economic indices. Ireland has the second highest level of low-paying jobs in the developed world, according to a 2014 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development survey. Since the crisis began, almost half a million people are estimated to have emigrated.
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Ireland still does not have a left/right political culture typical of most European states but politics here could be on the verge of a historic realignment, said commentator Ronan Burtenshaw.
“The line of division in this election will be establishment — Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour — and anti-establishment,” said Burtenshaw.
“Right now the most likely government is Fine Gael-Labour and a number of right-wing independents or a small party. But if the government vote continues to trend downwards in the polls we might be left with a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition or voting agreement — which would be a historic realignment of Irish politics, given that those two have traded power since the 1920s.”
Against such an uncertain backdrop, few would bet against another general election in the near future.
“There is a sense among all parties that they believe this election will not be decisive and that we will face another one soon enough no matter what,” said Johnny Fallon. “The campaign has been dull with a sense that not all heart is in it because they know the next election is the bigger one, whether it’s six months or two years away.”
Peter Geoghegan is a writer and journalist based in Glasgow. His latest book “The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be The Same Again” was published in 2015 by Luath Press.