Five takeaway messages from Ireland’s election

Ireland has rejected the austerity government, despite its claim to have brought about economic recovery


As Ireland enters its third day of vote counting, 148 of 158 parliamentary seats have been filled and it’s clear that the outgoing coalition has been soundly rejected.

What’s less clear is what kind of government will take its place. No party has anything near a majority, and the coalition options are few and fraught with challenges.

The two largest parties, centrist Fianna Fáil and centre-right Fine Gael have all but ruled out a grand coalition, the only realistic option for a majority government. The likeliest scenario is now that Fine Gael will form a minority government, in which case the country faces a fresh election, perhaps immediately. 

Here are five things we’ve learned from this short, but hectic, election season.

1. On austerity, macroeconomic recovery isn’t enough to convince people

Fine Gael’s campaign focused on the need for Ireland to ‘keep the recovery going’. Having inherited a catastrophe in 2011, the government has won the praise of European and commercial leaders. Ireland now has the fastest-growing economy in Europe, unemployment has dropped below ten per cent and emigration has slowed.

But these figures clearly don’t mean much to those at the receiving end of five years of harsh austerity, who don’t feel the recovery means anything to them. In a recent poll, only 18 per cent of people said they are better off as a result of the government’s economic policy.

George Osborne should pay attention—not everyone accepts that macroeconomic growth justifies attacks on public services and ordinary people.


2. Irish Labour has been outflanked on the left

In Ireland, as in Spain and Greece, radical leftists have made huge gains in recent years and, as in the UK, these gains come largely at the expense of Labour moderates.  

Following its decision to go into government as a junior partner in 2011, Irish Labour has suffered a Lib Dem-type collapse and will hold fewer than ten seats in the new Dáil. Their loss translates into a surge for a medley of other left-wing parties. 

Meanwhile, the newly-formed Social Democrats have gained three seats in their first election, the Green Party has regained two seats, the Anti-Austerity Alliance—People Before Profit has claimed five seats, and leftist independents and others have picked up quite a few more.

These results confirm, once again, the destabilising power of left-wing protest votes. However, questions are already being raised over over whether the fractured Irish Left can convert these gains into a coherent strategy.


3. Sinn Féin is gaining ground

The greatest surge on the Left favoured Sinn Féin who, despite continuing revelations about their legacy in Northern Ireland, increased their vote share by four percentage points.

While Gerry Adams has rejected the possibility of a coalition with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael (and they wouldn’t have him anyway), the party’s growing island-wide popularity and power strengthens its argument for Irish reunification.


4. PR can be be chaotic — but at least it’s accurate

Right now, Ireland is living the nightmare of anti-AV campaigners. It faces weeks of instability as politicians battle to form a government, small parties and independents have claimed almost a fifth of seats and the traditional power-players are losing their hold.

Ultimately, however, the chaos is reflective of deep public dissatisfaction with the politics of the last decade. A majority government for either of the largest parties would misrepresent the wishes of the people.


5. Toryism lost

In the aftermath of the British General Election last May, Fine Gael’s strategists were so inspired by the Conservatives’ victory that they hired some of David Cameron’s advisers. The prime minister himself showed his support for Kenny last week, writing a letter thanking him for his support in the EU negotiations, and wishing him luck.

However, the resounding conclusion of political commentators is that the Fine Gael/Tory electoral strategy of focusing on macro-economy rather than public services and promising tax cuts on the assumption of voter self-interest, has failed in Ireland.

Strategists on the British Left should probably try to figure out why.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

3 Responses to “Five takeaway messages from Ireland’s election”

  1. Robert Petulengro

    The EU is in control and the two main parties are its representatives. So what do you do if you want change, if you don’t like austerity? Well, nothing really.
    So you can do a protest vote instead.
    And it doesn’t matter anyway because the government is just a conduit for EU Directives anyway and austerity is what has been decided from above – as in Greece. Both the major parties together are now in a minority in Ireland as people revolt against EU rule. (48.9%)

  2. John Woods

    It is a failure of PR for the parties not to be able to form a coalition. This is happening in Spain on a grander scale and is no recommendation for PR. If the SDP in Germany could form a coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU surely there must be some encouragement for parties in Ireland and Spain to do the same. I accept that the UK is not an example as the poorer classes are taking all the punishment for the deficit despite being the least guilty of causing it. However those of us fighting to get a fairer system of voting in the UK are suffering a setback because of Ireland and Spain.

  3. nimh

    I’m a little skeptical of the claims in this article about a “surge for a medley of other left-wing parties” and the “huge gains” made by radical leftists. What are we talking about?

    – In the last elections, the Socialist Party and People Before Profit pooled 2.2% of the first preference votes. Now, the AAA/PBP alliance got 3.9%. So that’s a gain of just under two percentage points. In all, the alliance will go from 4 seats in the outgoing parliament to 5-6 in the new one.

    – The Social Democrats did not exist as a party at the time of the previous elections. However, they had 3 TDs in the outgoing parliament. In the new parliament, they will have, again, 3 TDs.

    – The Green Party went from 1.8% of FPVs to 2.7%; gains of less than one percentage point. That does return the party to parliament with 2 seats — but this is still far from the 6 it used to have after the 2007 elections.

    Does this really add up to a “surge”? They seem like very modest gains to me. Especially in the light of Labour losing a whopping 12.8% of the vote in punishment for its LibDem-like role in government.

    Sinn Fein seems to be the only party on the left that actually gained more than a couple of percentage points, going from 9.9% to 13.8% of the vote. Those are creditable gains. Calling it “the greatest surge on the Left” seems a tad overstated, though, especially considering that these gains are a pale shadow of what the polls were giving the party just a year or two ago, when it was polling at 22-23% of the vote.

    In all, the left-of-Labour parties did gain significant ground, this remains true. If you add it all up and charitably count all of the Soc-Dems’ vote as gains, that’s +9.5%. But again, that’s +9.5% juxtaposed to the Labour Party losing 12.8%. So the conclusion appears to be that left-wing parties almost, but not quite, succeeded in winning over the voters who left a party they already thought to be left-wing in 2011. That sounds more like what Hugh Linehan, in the Irish Times, described as the “political earthquake that never happened” than like the Spanish and Greek examples invoked in this article.

Leave a Reply