Ireland is still coming to terms with the General Election outcome. Is it a sign that populism is alive and well and thriving in Ireland?  After all results across Europe have shown a rise in support for populist parties, so why not in Ireland? Has populism here, honed on the Water Charge issue several years back,  now found wider expression. Or is it a sign that Sinn Fein has definitely “arrived” as a political force, signalling, as well as the party coming in from the cold, a giant stride towards a left/right alignment in Irish politics?  More prosaically is it just the latest example of a mood swing in Irish politics with yet another rejection of the government of the day for failing to deliver at a time when the need for some form of radical action to tackle the housing and homeless situation and do something to improve the quality of delivery in the health area has rarely been greater. The answer probably is a mixture of all three with only one clearly evident conclusion  so far –  rejection of the outgoing government which ran on its record, and that record was found wanting.

Put simply it was the third post-Crash election and the third “Throw the Bums Out” election. In 2011 Fianna Fail were emphatically rejected. In 2016 a dissatisfied electorate took out its anger by savaging Labour, which was destroyed as a political force, and also less severely Fine Gael, which managed to cling on in power through an unprecedented arrangement which saw it propped up by Fianna Fail. This time around both the main parties were rejected and Labour’s vote declined still further. Between them the three parties mustered less than 50% of the votes cast, a far cry from the 79% secured in 2007. With the main Bums rejected, left were Sinn Fein, demanding to be given its chance, and promising goodies for which someone else would pay , the Greens  who wittered on about Climate Change but had obviously only restricted appeal, the hard left,  with even less , and a collection of favourite sons and daughters with strictly local appeal.

Sinn Fein launched “ Giving Workers and Families a Break”, an unashamedly populist (and dubiously costed) manifesto somewhat reminiscent of Fianna Fail’s in 1977, advocating tax cuts, including abolition of property tax (deja vue anyone?) with miscellaneous other proposals on housing and health, to be financed by taxation hikes on the wealthy and companies. The party ran a brilliant campaign, targeting successfully sections of the public dissatisfied with the Housing and Health situations in particular. (Find one person who ISN’T dissatisfied with both though most not directly affected recognise there is no quick fix for either.) Check out pages three to six of their manifesto and compare it with the results of an exit poll asking voters why they voted as they did. That poll, incidentally should be writ in stone for the other parties’ negotiating teams; the poll results should certainly concentrate minds.

Two issues dominated, with almost 60% citing health (32%) and housing (26%). Next (8%) was the pension age issue, followed at 6% by jobs ( there is virtually full employment) and climate change, about which only the Greens seem concerned. 4% cited taxation, 3% crime and childcare, and one per cent (1% !) Brexit and Immigration. So much for the various lobby and pressure groups and for the outgoing government’s “achievement” on Brexit. So much also for Sinn Fein’s “core political objective” of achieving Irish unity through a referendum. It may be buried among the “something else” cited by 6% but it certainly did not feature as a major issue for the voters. The Sinn Fein surge was down to domestic internal Irish issues.

The inept campaigns of the Big Two, both forced to defend the record of the outgoing government and  promising only gradual improvement  offered nothing new. There was obvious appeal  in the notion that, after years of frustration and austerity, the party dangling  change, action and improvement should be given a chance ( again, deja vue?). This, rarely stated explicitly, is Sinn Fein’s strongest card for being part of the next government. The downside, as I pointed out last time, based on previous electoral history, is that parties who promise much and fail to deliver, get unceremoniously dumped next time around; not even the whinge that the party in coalition was not free to implement fully its policies on account of its partners cuts much mustard.

The result, an effective stalemate, means that, barring some sudden unexpected development, it will take some time – and negotiation – for the next Irish government to emerge.  Even any two of the Big Three together will not hack it, hence the courting by all of the Greens (who should and could extract a heavy and cast-iron policy guarantee – last time up they were merely voting fodder for Fianna Fail and suffered accordingly).  The alternatives are some patched up arrangement involving very minor parties and/or some Independents ( of which there are 21), a Grand Coalition involving all the Big Three ( which nobody is talking about), some form of minority government propped up by a variant of the last “confidence and supply arrangement” or another general election which nobody wants.

Crucial to what is eventually hammered out as a programme for government are the priorities. Compromise will be necessary all round and, therefore, there are no “red lines,” however party spokesmen may huff and puff.  While the result conveyed a demand for change from a section of the electorate, it was far from a majority, whatever Sinn Fein, and some loud voices on the left may assert. 70% of the votes cast (and over 70% of the seats) did not go to Sinn Fein and the hard left. Sinn Fein apologists have pointed to the fact that, with more candidates their surpluses could have racked up perhaps a dozen more seats. It can equally be argued that it was only the vagaries of the later counts of the PR system that hindered some of the 16 runner-up Fianna Fail candidates from being elected. The result is as it is –stalemate- and now the voters expect the politicians to sort something out.

Despite the clear evidence to the contrary there has been much speculation and comment that the Sinn Fein vote in some way brought Irish unity nearer, and indeed their manifesto calls for a referendum “North and South for a united Ireland”. Good luck with that. Scrutiny of the many elections held in the North over the past decade show little evidence of shifts in tribal loyalties and even the prospect of a Catholic majority carries no guarantee that  all would vote for unity. A recent very comprehensive poll in the North gave 52% opposed to unity and 29% in favour; equally tellingly 73% of those who declared themselves neither nationalist or unionist, would oppose unity.

There is just one imponderable: what happens to and in post-Brexit Britain. Already there are hints that the trade and future relationship negotiations between Brussels and English-Nationalist London will turn very nasty very quickly. And then: who knows?

Author’s Note

I circulated on 12 February my initial reaction to and report on the recent General Election. There follows some further analysis on the WHY  and the HOW it happened.

It is likely to be some time before a government emerges. What is beyond dispute is that in any agreed Programme for Government the first priority will have to be the Housing Crisis and its Siamese twin  – the Homeless problem. Whichever parties make up the next government, its success, and therefore their reelectibility, will depend on the government’s record on housing. It will not be easy, and, indeed, media comment since the election has been good at  itemising what’s wrong but being fairly light and non – specific on the small print of solutions. Some form of holistic and integrated approach to address the multiple interrelated issues is called for.

Perhaps a start might be to declare a “Housing Emergency” and establish a Cabinet sub-committee to meet weekly, to be chaired by the Taoiseach and including inter alia  a senior politician of a different party as Minister for Housing plus the Attorney General and the Minister for Finance; the sub- committee to draw up a plan of action and report on its implementation on a monthly basis. Toes will be trodden on clearly, but the fate of previous governments which have failed to deliver on promises should be kept firmly in mind.

I touch on the united Ireland and the Border poll issue. Suffice to say that whatever impelled the surge in the vote for Sinn Fein, support for the party’s stance on a united Ireland, was not a major factor. In view of media speculation and the comments of some politicians, it is worth taking note of the results of the many elections in the North over the past decade. Last December’s General Election saw the DUP gain 30.6% and the UUP 11.7% i.e. a solid pro-Union vote of 42.3. Sinn Fein got 22.8 and the SDLP 14.9, a Nationalist vote of 37.1. In 2017 the blocs secured 46.3 (unionist) and 41.1 (nationalist). In 2015 the figures were 41.7 to 38.4 and in 2010 44 to 41. The Assembly elections over the same period demonstrated the same overall picture The waters are muddied somewhat by the intrusion of independents, usually Unionist, and the  yoyo performance of Alliance, currently on the up – 16.8% in 2019 – a party  generally reckoned to be moderately  Unionist and to include numbers of middle class Catholics. The vote on Brexit muddies matters further, but it’s reasonable to assume that those Unionists who voted Remain did not do so on the basis that it was also a plebiscite on Irish unity. The most recent, fairly reliable poll, showed 52% to 29% opposed to Irish unity were a border poll to take place, with over 70% of those not affiliated opposed to unification ( the details of the poll are well worth studying). The demographics are shifting certainly, albeit slowly, and who knows what horrors may be forced on both parts of the island by the gung ho English nationalists running Britain in the impending negotiations with Brussels, but Irish politicians should keep in mind Tip O’Neill’s dictum that “All Politics is Local.” The new Dail faces enough challenges in the present jurisdiction.



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