It has been a strange election in Ireland. The citizens of Ireland were expected to punish the government parties for their perceived mismanagement of the Irish economy, and so they did.
The popularity of Fianna Fáil, who have been in power since 1997, plummeted so much that the party elected a new party leader just to fight the election. It didn’t matter – they got pasted anyway. Their junior coalition party, the Greens, were wiped out. Galway appears to buck the trend – it looks like Fianna Fáil candidates will top the poll in both Galway West and Galway East, which has more to do with the individuals’ own profile than any national trend. There was a third party in coalition when the present government took over in 2007 – however, the Progressive Democrats [PDs] subsequently disintegrated. The electorate in Galway didn’t bear a grudge against the former PDs – Noel Grealish [who ran in this election as an independent] will probably get elected in Galway West [which includes the city and Connemara] and Ciaran Cannon [who was the last leader of the PDs, albeit as caretaker] has been elected for Fine Gael in Galway East.
Fine Gael [FG] have become the largest party in the country, with Labour now the second largest party. In Galway West however, the FG tactic of running 4 candidates in the same constituency looks to have split the vote so it is uncertain if 2 FG candidates will be elected [there is a recount of the votes ongoing]. In Galway East, Labour got their first ever TD in that constituency, and FG got 2 [replacing 2 retiring FG TDs].
In some ways, all of the political parties were forced to fight an election that they were not quite expecting. The economic crisis has been well known since 2008, but became much more serious than anyone was expecting in the last 6 months. At one stage, polls indicted that Labour would outshine Fine Gael, but that could never translate into seats because the Labour party simply didn’t have enough candidates to capitalize on it. In Ireland, candidates are usually cultivated years in advance through local elections [first becoming town or county councillors]. In general, there isn’t any point in a political party fielding too many candidates because it only splits the vote. But the utter collapse of the Fianna Fail vote meant that normal voting patterns didn’t apply. It did give an opportunity for non-affiliated candidates and very small parties to prosper – as of now, 13 Independents, 2 Socialist Party and 2 People before Profit candidates have been elected.
Most parties campaigned on the theme of change – though, in Fianna Fail’s case, they had already managed to change the country from prosperous to bankrupt. But for the other larger parties, this election was really more of the same old routine, rather than anything new. The leader of Fine Gael, and the man most likely to be Taoiseach, is Enda Kenny – who is currently the longest serving member of the Dail [Irish parliament. He has not served in government since the 1994-1997 FG/Labour coalition government. That was also the last time that Eamonn Gilmore, the leader of the Labour Party and FG's likely coalition partner this time, also served in a government.
Their choice of candidates wasn't terribly inspiring either. Most were from the gene pool of teachers , auctioneers, solicitors and there were the usual collection of candidates trying to retain their parents' seat. Even though Ireland's export industries will be the main hope of lifting Ireland of of recession, you'd be hard pushed to find a newly-elected TD that is representative of those industries (outside of the agricultural sector).
A Fine Gael /Labour coalition would have a huge majority but will also have some very difficult decisions to make. Enda Kenny is a very poor communicator and he will spend the next few years giving the electorate a lot of very bad news on a regular basis. One are likely to be impacted is the public service - the issue is not so much how good or bad it is, or even how essential - it is simply that the government cannot afford the cost of running the state payroll. Labour has a large representation among public sector workers [Gilmore is a former union rep] so it will be interesting to see how the party will implement savings as part of a coalition without alienating their following or their own TDs. It will be also interesting to see if the Fine Gael party will continue to support their own leader if things get tough. Only last year, there was an internal heave in Fine Gael against Enda Kenny – many of the ringleaders will probably be ministers in the next government. Ordinarily, such a rebellion would have been an act of total folly, if it had not been for the total collapse of the government’s support. But if those rebels didn’t think Enda was fit to run the party (or the country) last year, why would they think it now?¹
However, not all is bleak. A large number of independents – both left and right-wing – were elected. If anything, they will bring fresh thinking to the Dáil. In addition, Sinn Féin have increased their vote almost to the same level as Fianna Fáil. Though it might not seem like much of a consolation to newly-unemployed Fianna Fail TDs, Sinn Fein’s new-found popularity is a testament to the success of the Northern Ireland Peace Process which Fianna Fail did so much to drive. Sinn Fein never had much support in the Republic during the IRA’s terrorist campaign – the fact that Sinn Féin have so many elected members now is as a result of their engagement in the democratic process.
And all is not lost for Fianna Fail as a party either. A good chunk of the surge in votes for independent candidates and Sinn Féin has come from disillusioned FF voters – Fianna Fail will hope to attract some [or all] of those voters back in the future. A large of the outgoing Fianna Fail TDs have retired [encouraged , no doubt, by the large payoffs on offer - payoffs which are likely to be reduced for subsequent retirees. As such, those TDs managed to do something that many victims of the Irish economic boom and bust could not do - cash out at the top of the market]. The departures will leave room for plenty of new candidates in the future – if anything, Fianna Fail may well be the most rejuvenated party by the next election.
The bottom line is that it is unlikely that any new government could be more inept, or do more damage to the country than the government that has just been fired by the Irish electorate. That may not be the best basis for optimism but at least it is a start.
[¹There is also going to be another 'blast from the past' this year - the Moriarty Tribunal will finally issue its report. Another member of Fine Gael that served in the the 1994-1997 government with Enda Kenny was Michael Lowry, who as then minister for Communications, was responsible for the issue of the second GSM mobile phone license in Ireland in 1996. A government enquiry set up in 1997 to investigate possible corruption payments to politicians has been running ever since and has been investigating, amongst other things if Lowry's conduct was proper during the licencing process. Lowry - now an independent - was re-elected again this time. Should the Tribunal find his actions in 1996 were illegal, the state would be exposed to huge liabilities from the failed bidders of the second licence. ]