7 Key Issues for the Irish General Election

by Ian Maleney

24 February 2016

On 26 February, Ireland goes to the polls for its first general election since 2011. In those five years, Ireland has exited its EU/IMF/ECB-funded bailout programme and has returned, the government tells us, to serious yet sustainable growth.

You could look at it another way: austerity has been institutionalised, and another housing crisis has already settled in alongside the healthcare crisis, the environmental crisis and the more recent ‘gangland crime crisis’. Despite the many critical issues facing the country today, Fine Gael is almost certain to remain the largest party in the country next month. Beyond that however, things get a little more interesting:

1. This government is finished.

A recent Irish Times poll suggested that 63% of people want a change of government after the forthcoming election. With the government parties of Fine Gael and Labour currently holding between 32% and 40% of the vote, they’re very likely to get one. On a very good day, the two government parties might scrape to 65 seats, a long way short of the 80 they need – as a minimum – to stay in power in their current formation.

2. Can Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil work together?

Since the end of the Irish civil war in 1923, the state has been governed by either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. The two parties share essentially the same economic, social and political views but despise each other for pseudo-historical reasons.

Until the late 1990s, the two parties could usually claim upwards of 70% of the vote between them. The most recent Sunday Business Post poll put them at a combined total of 48%. To avoid mutiny, the leaders of both parties have had to deny the possibility of coalition, but it may well prove the only practicable option that will make up the numbers. Some TDs might walk away as a result, but would it be worth the damage? A century of bitter competition might soon come to an end.

3. A big election for the left and independents.

The recent fight against the imposition of water charges has arguably been the biggest and most consistent popular mobilisation in the country’s history. Left-wing parties like the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) and People Before Profit (PBP), as well as independents like Clare Daly and Joan Collins, have been at the head of that movement.

For this election, AAA and PBP have grouped together, sort of, while various independent groups like Right2Change and Independents4Change have also coalesced. The AAA’s Paul Murphy and PBP’s Richard Boyd-Barrett have both made multiple appearances on national television and their party’s support seems to be holding strong with a chance of six or seven TDs being returned in the Dublin area. Whether or not some new names can break through, whether or not they can increase support outside of the capital, the last five years has seen the ‘hard left’ become a fixture of Irish politics. Perhaps for the first time, they’re being taken seriously.

4. Sinn Féin: where to now?

The 2011 election saw Sinn Féin almost triple its seats, and current estimates make the party likely to double that number again. From having had four seats in 2007; next month it could have 28 or 30. There are a couple of key factors here. One, Sinn Féin is strongly supported by younger voters, many of whom feel it has been the most vocal and organised of the opposition parties, not simply the political wing of the IRA.

Secondly, under the system of proportional representation, Sinn Féin does well with transfers from more left-wing candidates. Finally, the surreal rehabilitation of Gerry Adams via his Twitter account cannot be discounted altogether. If only people under 35 could vote, Sinn Féin would be the biggest party in the state next month; as it is, it might well be second. If that happens, members will have a decision to make about their appetite for coalition.

5. New parties? What new parties?

During 2014, we regularly heard that there was room for a new party. First into the breach was Renua, a right-libertarian party led by Lucinda Creighton, a former Fine Gael minister who left the party as a result of her dedication to denying women bodily autonomy. Renua has promised to challenge corruption, remove red-tape and introduce a flat tax.

Next in line were the Social Democrats, founded by the vaguely left-leaning trio of Róisín Shortall, Stephen Donnelly and Catherine Murphy. Their policies are focused on the leaders’ strengths of public healthcare, community-level economics and anti-corruption respectively. There is a sense of history repeating itself: Renua is a shadow of the now-extinct Progressive Democrats and the SocDems are what Labour thinks itself to be. Neither party has captured the public imagination thus far, and will do well to return much more than their already-established TDs.

6. Gender quotas.

This year, all political parties have to ensure that at least 30% of their candidates for election are women or they face losing half of their state funding. This, you would think, should not be either difficult or controversial. But this is Ireland, and one Fianna Fáil activist is taking his case to the Supreme Court after a woman was chosen to run ahead of him. Whether or not Brian Mohan succeeds in his pathetic little quest for self-realisation, there will be twice as many women running for election this year than five years ago.

Will this make a difference to the outcome? Given that only 95 out of the 1242 people ever elected as a TD in this country have been women, it’s bound to change the emphasis at least. It might not be so easy in future to pull a female colleague onto your lap during a late-night sitting of the Dáil. Who knows, maybe the use of small fines to punish sexual violence against women might find itself on the agenda for once.

7. What isn’t being talked about?

The government’s wish to reduce everything to a question of stability – how much tax-cutting is too much tax-cutting, how many more Gardaí is too many more Gardaí – has resulted in a boring, shallow and largely irrelevant campaign.

Topics ignored include: the Repeal the 8th campaign to legalise abortion, the disastrous recent flooding and its attendant environmental concerns, and a homelessness crisis that sees 70 families a month losing their homes. Has any politician been asked what they plan to do should Britain leave the EU? Has anyone been asked about our criminally unjust system of Direct Provision? There has been no discussion about the way we care for our elderly, nothing on mental health provision, nothing on the exclusionary role of religion in our educational system.

Nothing that could be seen as difficult or divisive has been addressed at all. After the excitement and colour of last year’s marriage equality referendum, these shrunken horizons, this lack of imagination and appetite for change, is both disappointing and slightly bewildering.

Photo: Justin Pickard/Flickr

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