Ireland’s Political Stalemate: Can the Left Offer a Way Out?

by Donnacha Kirk and Liam McNulty

26 February 2016

As the Republic of Ireland goes to the polls in an election that promises to deliver electoral instability, we ask: what has lead to this political stalemate? In the shadow of the financial crisis and bailout, in the middle of an unequal economic recovery, can the fragmented left provide a convincing vision of a transformed society?

There is no money left.

The financial crisis of 2008 left Ireland as an economic disaster area. Reckless lending from banks had fuelled a huge property bubble, ultimately leading to their collapse and forcing the country into a €85bn (£61bn) bailout. In return, the then Fianna Fáil-Green Party government introduced a harsh austerity programme of cuts and tax rises, first under their own steam and then under the supervision of the troika (the IMF, the European Commission and the ECB).

This turmoil sank the governing Fianna Fáil party in the 2011 general election, extinguishing their junior partners the Greens in the Dáil, and ushering in a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Now those parties are finding their support draining away, again with the junior partner, Labour, being hit hardest.

Fine Gael are getting off more lightly. Despite administering austerity for five years, and with a less than charismatic leadership, they’re on course to remain the largest party in the Dáil. Polls suggest they will struggle to form a government, but this tax-rising, service-cutting centre-right party hasn’t seen its vote decimated. Compared to Fianna Fáil’s embarrassing 17.5% share in 2011, Fine Gael are polling in the 25-30% bracket in 2016 – not a collapse by any means.

Why? The memory of the crisis and the bailout still may still be raw but, economically, the Ireland of 2016 seems like a parallel universe. The country posted annual GDP growth rates of 7% at the end of 2015. Pre-election debates have focused on how best to spend the newly available cash, with both tax cuts and spending increases proposed. This ‘fiscal space’ is estimated at between €3.2bn and €12bn depending on who you believe.

For the ruling coalition, this shows austerity has ‘worked’, and that it’s crucial this government is re-elected to ‘keep the recovery going’ – Fine Gael’s slogan for the campaign. It is this appeal to economic competence and stability that explains much of Fine Gael’s continuing support.

Yet the economic recovery is more apparent on national balance sheets than in most people’s pockets. It’s been achieved at the expense of public services, with cuts equivalent to 15% of overall GDP leading to a crisis in the health system and massive shortages in social housing (with a concomitant rise in homelessness). By European standards, deprivation and hunger are high, while mass emigration, particularly among the young, has kept unemployment figures relatively low, perhaps another ostensible competence that’s kept Fine Gael voters loyal.

While the ‘recovery’ and the promise of better times ahead has kept Fine Gael afloat, support for small parties has grown against the backdrop of cuts and crises. Whatever the current fiscal breathing space, the road from 2008 onwards has left lasting social damage, leaving many voters feeling cold at the governing parties’ talk of a recovery – and driving them to seek out different options.

Politics ‘against politics’?

The main message of the opinion polls, if they can be believed, is this: people are voting ‘against politics’ rather than to form a government of their choice. An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll at the beginning of February showed 63% in favour of a change of government, and a similar percentage intending to vote for parties regardless of their chance of getting into government.

So what form does this politics ‘against politics’ take? The most spectacular feature of Irish politics since the financial crisis has been the rise of non-party Independents and small political parties of the left and the right.

Independents have always featured in Ireland’s proportional single transferable vote (STV), multi-member constituency electoral system, but now they’re capitalising on resentment towards the political class. Canny harnessing of personal followings, along with drawing attention to local issues, may give Independents a 15-20% vote share, according to polls.

Taking into account small and new parties increases this share significantly. Predictions for the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit (AAA-PBP), Renua (a socially conservative right-wing split from Fine Gael), the Social Democrats (a centre-left split from Labour) and the Greens take the ‘Independents & Others’ bloc to nearly 30% – enough to beat the largest party, Fine Gael.

There can be few clearer indictments of the political class than this fragmented electoral landscape: the hitherto dominant parties of the state may barely clear 50%. The same underlying alienation and resentment explain why water charges, on their own not the most extreme instance of austerity, served to explode a latent wave of intense anger in Ireland.

‘Irish Syriza’ fails to dominate, Irish Labour struggles to survive.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin are cementing their position as the main anti-establishment voice and are looking forward to their best election in the Republic of Ireland in modern times, quite possibly doubling their number of TDs.

But there is a feeling that they have, yet again, failed to ‘break-out’ and dominate the anti-Troika movement. The ‘Irish Syriza’ rhetoric of 2015 has been downplayed in favour of a ‘fair recovery’, matching the shift in the political debate about growth. Ironically, in the wake of Alexis Tsipras’s third memorandum, talk of an Irish Syriza has become a barbed compliment, particularly when Sinn Féin is administering Tory cuts as the price to pay in order to maintain Northern Ireland’s post-conflict power-sharing government in the face of Unionist threats to collapse it.

Sinn Féin were not helped by the recent outbreak of Dublin gang violence. Though the party had nothing to do with it, the political class nevertheless seized the opportunity to hammer Sinn Fein on ‘law and order’. A particular focus has been the party’s call to abolish the non-jury Special Criminal Court – a body which has also been condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee and Irish civil liberties groups.

Yet despite this, Sinn Féin’s support in lower socio-economic classes – where austerity hits hardest – is stubborn, although countering low voter turnout may be a challenge. The party has fallen back to polling in the mid-teens, after highs of 24% during the water protests in 2015: its hope of becoming the second largest party in the state may have to be put on hold.

Of the three pro-austerity parties, Labour faces an existential crisis. Erstwhile supporters feel betrayed by the party’s time in government which has seen broken promises on university tuition and the introduction of water charges. Their urban working class support is being eaten up by AAA-PBP, Sinn Féin and newcomers the Social Democrats, glowing after a successful media performance on the seven-way leaders’ debate. If Labour fall to a single-figure number of TDs, returning the current government becomes nigh-on impossible and it could spell danger for the ongoing existence of the Labour Party itself.

Anti-austerity politics clearly remains a powerful force in Irish politics. It seems the same force that drove unprecedented numbers to the streets in anti-water privatisation protests will deliver votes to anti-austerity groups like Sinn Féin, the smaller left parties and various Independents. But the anti-austerity vote remains fragmented, and divided on both immediate and long-term aims.

Just as in Spain and Portugal, Fine Gael is showing that a centre-right government can impose austerity for years, take a battering but still win elections by promising austerity and providing some extra money to key constituencies. To make headway in Ireland and across Europe the left needs to move beyond purely defensive slogans and offer a positive programme for a transformed society.

End of the civil war?

Talk of instability may appear puzzling at first. The two main parties – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – between them are set to get just shy of 50% of votes cast and enough seats for a comfortable majority. They are pragmatic, centrist parties who agree almost entirely on economic policy. Both were pro-bailout and are pro-European, while their remaining ideological differences have largely been put to bed with the ending of the Troubles in the north of Ireland and the secularisation of Irish society, culminating in the victory of last year’s equal marriage referendum.

Why then is there huge uncertainty about the make-up of the next government or even whether it will be possible to form one at all? The answer lies deeper in 20th century Irish history.

The two parties in question emerged from opposite sides of Ireland’s 1922-23 civil war. They have never governed together and the thought of co-operating would be anathema to generations of party activists and supporters.

Both also want to be top dog. Fianna Fáil has dominated the Irish political scene since it first entered government in 1932. It has been in government for 61 of the 84 years since then, alternating with short periods of coalition government, usually Fine Gael cooperating with the smaller Labour party. So committed was Fianna Fáil to its role as the natural party of government that it only deigned to enter a coalition of its own in 1989.

Yet the laws of electoral arithmetic are unyielding and irresistible. If, after the dust has settled, a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition is the only viable governing combination, then maybe their respective supporters could swallow a ‘Grand Coalition for the national good’ even if this would leave Sinn Féin as the dominant opposition party – something that would horrify the southern establishment. A second election before the year is out remains just as likely an option.

Events, dear boy.

Whatever the election’s results or the outcome of the coalition talks thereafter, the determining factors of Irish politics over the years ahead will come from outside Leinster house and probably from outside the state. A renewed bout of global financial crisis would blow Ireland’s fragile recovery apart, and even extended stagnation in the rest of the Eurozone could submerge Ireland along with the rest. Financial collapse banjaxed Ireland’s natural party of government, now Fine Gael are selling themselves, not on ideology, but on competency. An economic collapse on their watch would leave their ‘safe pair of hands’ image in shreds.

For a number of years after the financial crisis it was a truism that ‘the Irish don’t protest’. Unlike the rowdy Greeks and troublesome Spaniards, the Irish take their troika-diagnosed medicine, raise taxes, cut social spending and get on without much complaining. While austerity street protests in Ireland may never have reached the scale of the Indignados or Syntagma square, the goody-two-shoes image took a blow in 2014 with the emergence of huge protests against water privatisation. The Right2Water campaign had hundreds of thousands on the streets and the government on the ropes in 2015.

Right2water took support and leadership from AAA-PBP, Sinn Féin and a range of left-Independents. Its energy will certainly help push their election campaigns. The question is whether the movement can make political gains of its own, either inside or outside the Dáil. At the moment it seems content to give its imprimatur to any candidate willing to sign-up to a shared policy platform called Right2Change but, with these politicians spread across different parties and a raft of Independents, it will be difficult to press them into coordinated political action.

The same is true of a number of other social movements that have been prominent in recent years. Repeal the 8th is a pro-choice movement and epicentre of feminist campaigning in Ireland today, whose immediate goal is the repeal of the 8th amendment to the constitution which gives both mother and unborn child an equal right to life. Waking the Feminists used the publication of an overwhelmingly male-dominated line-up for the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising at Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey, to spark a wider conversation on the under-representation of women in the arts and beyond. Yes Equality is still basking in the afterglow of its emphatic victory in last year’s marriage equality referendum, while the #hometovote campaign that encourages recent emigrants to return home to cast their vote (the Republic has never made allowances for postal voting from abroad) is broadly apolitical but does keep the issue of mass emigration on the table.

It is not clear whether any of these movements have the appetite or ability to push for coordinated political action beyond their own particular focus, but there are signs that they are galvanising those not usually engaged in electoral politics – the urban working class, the young in general – in ways that could yet swing the vote in a number of constituencies. Beyond the short-term, these movements and others like them will have a more profound impact on the political scene in Ireland than any one election.

Photo: Sinn Féin/Flickr

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