Well before the last count had been completed in the Irish local and European elections it was obvious we were witnessing a major sea change in Irish politics. The difficult question though is what exactly is that change and what does it mean for the future?
Sinn Fein’s gains are the biggest story of the election and, at first glance, perhaps appear the easiest to analyse, as well as the easiest to project as regards what their success will mean in the longer term. With a dramatic increase nationwide in the number of local councillors to c. 150 and an MEP elected easily in each Euro constituency, their long-expected big breakthrough has arrived.
However, this undoubted success is not without complications and contradictions.
Short term, such a big influx of inexperienced politicians will quickly have to learn the ropes to fulfil the expectations underpinning their election. The perceived success or otherwise of Sinn Fein councillors will inevitably impact on the prospects for the party in the next general election. Given that contest will be relatively soon, less than two years at the longest, it leaves little time for much in the way of signature achievements at local level. Equally, in initiating and implementing policy Sinn Fein will be very much at the mercy of other parties.
The most serious problems are long term. Much of Sinn Fein’s vote at these elections has been attracted by their anti-austerity stance – opposition to water charges, other cutbacks and the legacy of the bank bailout; essentially a left-wing platform. However an important, indeed the most important, plank in Sinn Fein’s agenda as an All-Ireland party is working to end partition and bring about Irish unity. It’s why Sinn Fein exists as a party. The big conundrum though is how many southern voters actually have much interest in this question, especially the drove of new supporters who cast their ballots last week.
It’s certainly not a major magnet for voters, most of whom care little for Northern Ireland, but how off-putting might it be in future if Sinn Fein make it a practical priority in government? People may be ready to indulge the odd ritualistic mention of the Peace Process and the North, but ultimately after nearly a century of separation the population of the Republic has little appetite for much more than that – especially if it comes at a cost . This lack of focus on what happens in Northern Ireland has spared Sinn Fein from close scrutiny of the polices it implements there, and also meant that Gerry Adams’ arrest had very little effect down south.
Ironically then partition has been an important factor in Sinn Fein’s current success in the Republic – a success that might shortly place it in a position to seek an end to partition. How Sinn Fein deals with the contradiction will determine its future – in southern politics and as a party. Gerry Adams is 65 and close to retirement, as is Martin McGuinness. Will new younger southern-focused leaders such as Mary Lou McDonald or Pearse Doherty, seasoned in viewing the political landscape from the Dail, really seek to prioritise an activist ‘United Ireland’ policy that is anathema to southern voters according to opinion polls? Or will they subtly reorientate the party’s focus? And if they do, will Sinn Fein face another moment of crisis as in the late 1960s, when a similar situation of a left-leaning Dublin leadership distant from Belfast issues led to a northern breakaway? Success in 2014 then may be a poisoned chalice.
Relative success was also enjoyed by Fianna Fail – not a triumph along Sinn Fein lines, but survival as a party. They retained almost exactly the same share of the vote, c.25%, as at the last local elections in 2009 and come out of these elections with the largest numbers of councillors. Having faced the wrath of the Irish electorate three years ago and diced with annihilation these results can be seen as representing a form of victory. Compared to the fond remembered days of dominating elections with 40% of the vote and forming single party governments, the new normal for Fianna Fail is a big come down though. The question that they and their supporters have to face is what happens to them next?
Current polls put Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein as likely to receive roughly 20% of the vote in the next election, with Independent/Others making up the rest. Fianna Fail are likely to fall behind Sinn Fein in seat numbers given the cut in the number of TDs overall to 158, Fianna Fail’s notorious lack of success in Dublin and the party’s decidedly transfer unfriendly status.
Numerous permutations for coalition governments are possible but none seem viable without Fianna Fail participation. Paradoxically that involvement could well spell not the rejuvenation but the obliteration of the party.
A Sinn Fein/Fianna Fail alliance is apparently favoured by 40-50% of Fianna Fail, as based on figures cited on RTE Radio, and opposed by roughly the same number. At least a portion of those opposed would be likely to leave the party rather than cooperate on the basis of past history and personal attitudes to Sinn Fein. In that scenario a smaller remnant Fianna Fail organisation might be able to continue in existence, though the possibility if not probability of eventual absorption may be most likely.
On the other hand, the alternative grand coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, with Fine Gael approximately twice and potentially treble the size of Fianna Fail is an option popular with Fine Gael members but apparently unpalatable with a large majority of the Fianna Fail organisation. The grave worry with this scenario is not the difference between the parties but the fact that they are to all intents and purposes almost identical – once the two groups coalesce in coalition, the smaller party will cease to exist, cannibalised by Fine Gael after 90 years of Civil War electoral politics.
So, in either scenario the future for Fianna Fail, barring a miracle, is bleak.
Which brings us to the ostensible losers of this weeks elections, Fine Gael and Labour. Beyond these bad drubbings for both parties, the future actually seems rather bright.
Certainly, contrary to the gloom and doom surrounding the Labour party, so profoundly devastating as to bring about a leadership change, their days do not appear to be numbered. The party’s identity does require a makeover to re-establish its left-wing credentials but the combination of a growing left vote in Ireland and the final emergence of European-style left-right politics presents a unique opportunity notwithstanding current adversity.
Unsavoury as Labour may be to other groups of the broad left such as the Socialist Party, People Before Profit and the Anti Austerity Alliance, even in a much reduced state it remains a far larger and better organised party – and seems very much certain to retain those advantages. Much then depends on what if any relationship develops between Sinn Fein, Labour, the smaller left parties and like-minded Independents if the electorate cast a majority of votes for this broad grouping. If no understanding can be reached the mantel passes to Fine Gael.
Fine Gael of all parties appears the most securely established, the most stable in policy and the most certain of its own identity. Once the current Reform Alliance rebels make their decision to rejoin or form their own party, there appears to be little in the way of other divisive fissures lingering in the ranks. On that basis Fine Gael would appear to be the standard bearers for the centre-right as the expected new structure of Irish politics develops. Mirroring divisions on the left, they may perhaps face some competition from new smaller groupings on the right – a more conservative Catholic organisation and/or a more economically radical party – though these are, on the basis of polls and these election results, likely to be quite minor groupings.
The key group and most intriguing outcome of all in the elections is the ongoing rise of the Independents – collectively they hold the greatest number of seats on councils nationwide. Polls also suggest they will have a hugely successful outcome at the next general election, somewhere in the region of 20%. Whoever can successfully woo and maintain an understanding with the greatest number of these Independents will be in pole position when it comes to forming a government after the next election.
Overall then the parties that have done worst in these elections, Labour and Fine Gael, may ironically have the most secure futures in a radically altering political environment. Sinn Fein, the biggest winners, face potential internal re-organisational challenges and a level of dissonance with their southern voters’ priorities and expectations. Fianna Fail may face the greatest challenge of all, with their very existence at stake unless they can devise a course to a safe harbour of purpose and policy in the evolving new world of Irish politics. Independents seem set to determine the balance of power and assume a centrality in government never before seen in Ireland.
If one thing is certain, it’s that there are interesting times ahead for watchers of Irish politics!