Monday, February 28, 2011

Ireland's difficulty is Enda's opportunity

Incoming Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny might be forgiven a bit of hyperbole when he described the election result as a “democratic revolution”. It was nothing on the bloody scale of what has gone on in the Arab world. Yet Kenny wasn’t too far off the mark either. The scale of the weekend’s defeat of the ruling government is rare in western democracies and unheard of in Ireland where Fianna Fail has been a dominant national institution for 80 years. Everyone expected them to lose this election after the 10-year property bubble burst causing the collapse of Ireland’s banking system and national finances. But no one was game to predict how much the fury of the voters would turn defeat into annihilation. The word landslide barely does justice to what happened. (AP Photo of Enda Kenny by Peter Morrison)

In a time of major economic crisis in Ireland, incumbency stunk to high heaven. Thanks to cronyism and incompetence, Fianna Fail has dropped from 78 seats to a likely 21. Minor governing partners the Greens have been wiped off the map losing all six seats showing what happens when an environmental movement becomes just another political party. FF have plummeted from the biggest party in the land, to a precarious rural rump. They may not even be the official opposition, if the large batch of newly elected left-wing independents manage to cobble together some sort of coalition.

The disaster was most remarkable in Dublin where FF was almost completely wiped out. Outgoing Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan clung on to his seat but he was the only successful candidate as a dozen others fell. FG did well as expected but not as well as Labour and the independents; it was as the Irish Examiner said “a sharp turn to the left in the capital”.

My home town of Waterford was a microcosm of the sea change that infected Irish politics. Mostly working class Waterford would usually elect 2 FF, 1 FG and 1 Labour in a stable and predictable 4-seat constituency that covers the city and county. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, FF only put forward one candidate this time round, experienced TD Brendan Kenneally. Most people, myself included, expected Waterford to end up electing 2 FG, 1 FF and 1 Labour. But FF’s 2007 vote of 46.5 percent in 2007 collapsed to 13.9 percent in 2011. Left wing independent John Halligan (a popular former Mayor) polled 10.3 percent but overcame Kenneally on the 11th count with the help of preferences to join 2 FG and 1 Labour member. For the first time in the history of the party, FF does not have anyone in Dail Eireann from Waterford.

But if FF is receiving last rites, the result is not the death knell of Irish nationalist politics. Sinn Fein may win as many as 10 seats doubling their representation including the election of party leader Gerry Adams who topped the poll in Louth. Their successes were in the northern republican strongholds of Louth, Donegal and Cavan though they also advanced in working class areas of Dublin.

The new government is almost certainly going to be a coalition of Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael and Eamon Gilmore’s Labour Party. As J.G. Byrne put it on Twitter at the weekend, “saying bye-bye FF and hello FG bit like beating cancer only to be told you now have incurable syphilis”. Immense financial and economic issues await the incoming administration. The debt crisis is escalating out of control with the bailout of the Anglo Irish bank expected to cost €34 billion. The strings attached to the €84 billion IMF and EU bailout are severe with government spending to cut by a fifth by 2014 and taxes to rise substantially. FG and Labour have differing views how best this can be achieved though neither suggest defaulting on the debt.

Writer Ruth Dudley Edwards is pessimistic the new coalition will be much better at managing the budget than the regime it replaced. Fine Gael, she said, was no more ideological than Fianna Fail, and is similarly awash with teachers and lawyers with almost no experience of government. Labour, she said, was led and dominated by the trade unions resisting change or cuts in the bloated, secretive and inefficient public services. “It is doubtful if a look at the books will turn its leader into Nick Clegg,” she wrote for her British audience.

A likely trajectory of this government is four years of hardship, bending over to receive its punishment as bankers in Brussels and Frankfurt spank Ireland for its profligacy in the good years. Perhaps the change will act as a placebo and install a badly needed sense of confidence. If that doesn’t work, the electorate will turn on Fine Gael with the same savagery it meted out to Fianna Fail. If the nationalist or socialist parties (or perhaps a nationalist socialist party) ever get hold of the levers of power then there really will be a democratic revolution.

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