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

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