The governing coalition of Fine Gael and Labour suffered a humiliating rejection at the hands of Irish voters in the General Election and the anti-austerity forces advanced. This continued the pattern evident in both the Portuguese and Spanish elections in 2015. It may also set the stage for renewed elections to the Dáil in Dublin later this year as no party looks able to form a stable government.
The results (at the time of writing) of first preference votes in the Irish transferable vote system are shown in percentage terms below, alongside the change from 2011 General Election.
Results for main parties/blocs (and changes from 2011 election), 1st preference votes, %
The election outcome has rightly been characterised as a meltdown for the government parties. The combined swing against them was the second largest in the history of the state, the largest having been in 2011, when Fianna Fáil and their partners in the Greens lost 27.1% having presided over the economic crisis and bailout by the Troika.
The combined Fine Gael/Labour election platform was for ‘stability to keep the recovery going’. But they were trounced precisely because a modest recovery had passed most people by and key services such as health have been devastated. In reality, the recovery has only been felt by property owners in and round Dublin where house prices have been soaring because of low interest rates and under-investment, including in public sector housing.
Wider European trends continue
The swing against the government (- 23.4%) implementing austerity continues the wider trend in Europe seen in Spain and Portugal last year. Big business and their political representatives in Ireland and Europe had been hoping to demonstrate that austerity works and could prove electable, if not popular. They failed dismally.
The government parties’ previous support scattered across the political spectrum. The biggest beneficiary was Fianna Fáil, followed by Sinn Féin and then other forces to the left of Labour, the new Social Democrats, the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit as well as a portion of the Independents. Renua, an explicitly anti-immigration party, failed to return even an existing TD (parliamentary representative).
Fianna Fáil did better than its pre-election polling position. But it has recovered nothing like its 2011 losses. Taken together the two dominant parties in the state’s history, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil got fractionally under 50% of the vote combined. This low level represents a seismic shift and will eventually mean the fake political divisions between them, inherited from their antecedents in the post-Partition civil war, may eventually have to be put to one side for the sake of stable government.
For now, this is not possible and the fake division between political co-thinkers must be maintained. This is because Sinn Féin is waiting in the wings as the leader of a real opposition. The Guardian quoted an astute Fianna Fáil strategist, ‘Another source said it would be “utter madness” for Fianna Fáil to link up officially with Fine Gael in government and hand over the leadership of the opposition to Sinn Féin’.
It is Sinn Féin‘s advance which is of the greatest concern to Ireland’s rulers. The campaign of exclusion, smear and vilification in the media was as relentless as it was unsurprising. Sinn Féin has developed a robust alternative to austerity via public sector investment. It alone also addresses the unresolved national question posed by Partition and the reactionary character of the states either side of the border. It is advancing by connecting the immediate issues of living standards and austerity to the structural political task of creating a new unified Irish state. Little wonder that Ireland’s rulers and Westminster governments find it so threatening.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will do their utmost not to be seen openly collaborating with each other. As no other parliamentary combination is numerically stable, another election may be unavoidable, possibly later this year. But the seismic tremors that shook Irish politics in the economic and financial crisis are clearly continuing and austerity is hugely unpopular. Sinn Féin remains the only party pointing a clear way out of the crisis.