Bertie Ahern has been returned for a third term of government after Thursday’s general election in Ireland. His Fianna Fail party will fall just short of an outright majority in the 164 seat Dáil (parliament) but will most likely form a coalition as the largest single party. The result confirms Ahern as the pre-eminent force in Irish politics continuing his ten year reign in power. The victory comes just a week after opinion polls predicted his defeat. Counting in several close seats will be completed today but it likely that Fianna Fail will finish with 41 per cent of the vote and 77 or 78 seats, short of the crucial 83 figure it needs to govern by itself.
Ireland’s second party Fine Gael made a huge improvement with 26 per cent and winning back possibly all of the 23 seats it lost in the 2002. It was Enda Kenny’s first election tilt as leader and the man from Castlebar, County Mayo made a good showing. Kenny has only been in the Dáil for one term. He squeezed into the final Mayo seat last time round but this time won the ballot comfortably. Following on from his victory in the Local and European Elections of 2004, Kenny now looks set to lead the party for the foreseeable future.
But the result represents a remarkable personal achievement for Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. The Irish media have labelled him a Lazarus for a spectacular comeback after several scandals in which intimate details of his personal life and finances were aired in the last eight months. The party spent the first two weeks of the election campaign explaining themselves to the electorate. But Ahern gathered momentum with a historic speech to Westminster’s joint Houses of Parliament and a strong showing in the leaders’ debate with Kenny. He called in favours from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair who both endorsed him. Finally the party strategists managed the vote well on election day to ensure that lesser candidates were dragged over the line by stronger ones.
But Fianna Fail will have to find a new coalition partner. Former partner the Progressive Democrats (PDs) were decimated in the election. Michael McDowell, party leader and Tanaiste (deputy prime minister) will quit politics after he lost his seat. The PDs had eight members coming into this election but may now end up with only two. The electorate took out its frustrations on the PDs tax-cutting, pro-business agenda. McDowell, who is also the Justice minister in the current administration, said last night "I love my country. I am deeply ambitious for it, but ... my period in public life as a public representative is over.”
Meanwhile Bertie Ahern said he wanted was to form "a stable government" for the next five years though he had not really turned his mind to how that would be done just yet. The 55 year old Ahern is already the second-longest-serving prime minister in Irish history behind Fianna Fail’s founder, Eamon de Valera, who won seven elections from 1932 to 1957. Ahern has three possibilities for the shape of the new Irish government. Firstly Fianna Fail could rule with the rump of the PDs with the aid of a number of Independent members. Secondly, it could rule outright with the Greens and thirdly it could rule outright with Labour. All three options have their difficulties.
Dealing with single issue independents will prove unpredictable and problematic and is probably the least favoured option. The Greens, although slightly down on 2002 are likely to pick up six seats which would take Fianna Fail over the line. This would be a questionable alliance for Fianna Fail who would baulk at some of the Greens' environmental policies. The two would also form a very narrow majority. However the Greens may be prepared to compromise on policies to gain a seat in government. Prior to the election, party leader Trevor Sergeant refused to rule out the use of Shannon airport as a stopover by US military personnel.
The third option with Labour is the strongest and yet least palatable. Labour fought the election in a coalition with Fine Gael and have become over the years intricately associated as their junior coalition party. However it did serve in government with Fianna Fail between 1992 and 1994. Labour are likely to gain 16 seats so a government with Fianna Fail would be a secure one. And on Thursday party leader Pat Rabbitte opened the door to the possibility having denied it all through the election campaign. While he said he didn’t look forward to putting Fianna Fail back in office, one of his priorities was to ensure Sinn Fein was unable to influence the next government
But that is the least likely option. Fianna Fail has formally ruled out any coalition with Sinn Fein political ally of the IRA. Gerry Adams’ all-Ireland party failed to make the predicted breakthrough gaining 7 per cent of the vote. Sinn Fein had hoped to capitalise on their high profile success in becoming junior government partners in Northern Ireland’s restored assembly but it did not translate into votes in the South. Nevertheless the Irish people are not as categorically certain as Ahern when it comes to power sharing with Sinn Fein. Opinion polls show voters believe he would do some kind of deal if it was the only way for him to extend his 10 years in power.
Whoever Fianna Fail forms government with has a massive task ahead. Ireland’s crumbling infrastructure has failed to keep pace with the sustained boom of the Celtic Tiger economy. Rapid population growth and new housing have placed severe strains on roads, schools, water supplies and hospitals. For decades a net benefactor of EU monies, the Republic is expected to become a net contributor this year. The strains of continued economic success allied with an increasing birth-rate and mass immigration is rapidly changing the social fabric of the country. Bertie Ahern will need to keep a steady hand at the tiller.