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29 February 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:36pm

In the Irish Republic, time is up for the old politics

The old divisions are losing their power, argues Barry Johnston.

By Barry Johnston

In December 1921, 5 years on from the 1916 Rising that saw the Irish once more take up arms against the British, a small delegation travelled to London for a meeting with the British Government. The outcome of that meeting, the Anglo Irish Treaty, gave rise to the creation of the Irish Free State and a civil war. It would also lead to a bitter rivalry between two parties – pro-Treaty Fine Gael and anti-treaty Fianna Fáil – that have dominated Irish politics to this day. 

This antagonistic relationship has entered an interesting new phase as the final few votes are counted from last Friday’s Irish general election. A grand coalition of these long-time adversaries looks the only viable option for the formation of a government with a majority of seats in the Dáil (the lower house of the Irish Parliament). 

In a neat historical symmetry, this may arise in part because of another group of Irishmen visiting London. Last year, senior advisors of the incumbent Fine Gael Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny met with advisors at Conservative Party headquarters. The meeting’s agenda was to share advice from the Tory campaign that have given David Cameron his surprise majority win last May. 

On the surface the parallels were striking. A centre-right party forms a government with a smaller party to its left; their arrangement is a marriage of convenience “in the national interest” to clean up the economic mess left by their fiscally feckless predecessors. The parties get on surprisingly well. They weather a few storms but generally judge themselves to have done a stand-up job in returning some order to the economy. They’d like a second term to finish the job. 

And just like the Tories, perhaps Fine Gael thought if the executed their campaign just so, they too might be able to stealthily capture seats from their coalition partners.

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That this has not been the outcome in Ireland is not owing to a lack of faithfulness to the plan, nor rigor in its execution. Some bits were imitated wholesale, from the slogan (“long-term economic plan/ keep the recovery going” to social media (they hired the same social media consultants). 

Instead, the Irish election threw up three headline results. The first was a resounding rejection of the incumbent government with Fine Gael and Labour’s combined vote falling from 56 to 33 per cent (Labour plummeted from 19 to seven per cent). 

Majoring on a recovery that many had yet to feel any personal benefit from was a major strategic error by Fine Gael. Meanwhile Labour was outflanked on the left by a coalition of anti-austerity parties who were well organised and had mobilised effectively against a disastrous government attempt to introduce water charges. 

The second talking point is how quickly Fianna Fáil have rebounded in this election having taken a thumping last time out for its disastrous management of the economy. The indulgent chunk of its grassroots support however, having delivered a slap on the wrists in the 2011 election, seems content to let the party down from the naughty step now. 

Finally, and for the first time, this election has seen Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s combined vote dip (just) below 50 per cent. Smaller parties and independents have done well. Leading the way is Sinn Féin with 14 per cent. Nearly a fifth of voters favoured no party at all; Ireland’s proportional representation system offering the opportunity for high profile local-issue candidates and smaller parties to win seats in the national parliament.

The question is whether these electoral outcomes will force a realignment in Irish politics. Ideologically, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are united by more than divides them on the centre-right. Meanwhile Sinn Féin’s gains and the increasing representation and coordination of independents and small parties has introduced a new centre of gravity on the left of Irish politics. 

All of this is playing out, not accidentally, at a moment that is heavy with historical resonance. In setting the date for the election, the outgoing Taoiseach no doubt had one eye on returning to office to preside over the celebrations marking the hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising to take place at the end of March. Perhaps inevitably then, in this centenary year, the two old warhorses of Irish politics are faced with questions of their relevance in modern Ireland. 

It’s an appropriate time to ask searching questions about about our politics and our future. The past number of years have been a punishing time for the Irish. One in 16 citizens has emigrated since the crash. The country is in the midst of a homelessness crisis. Headline economic growth figures mask huge inequalities and exclusion for people who never benefitted from the Celtic Tiger, never mind the recovery. 

It appears these are the questions that Irish voters want answers to now, not which way your forebears voted on the Treaty. 

Barry Johnston is the founder of EmigrantManifesto, campaigning for the right to vote for Irish citizens living abroad. He is an independent, London-based candidate for the Irish Seanad (Senate).

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