Its politics dominated by two parties since the foundation of the state, things could be about to change in Ireland. Economic collapse has seen old certainties shatter and a host of new political voices are vying to be heard.
It’s a truism that people vote in their economic interests – but it’s also true that they vote for a variety of reasons and often against what are considered their traditional political ‘homes’. Nowhere is this more true than in Ireland, a country that saw a strange, by European standards, consensus of opinion for much of the twentieth century.
But with the economy in its worst state in decades and a tide of austerity angering the public some are predicting this may be about to change forever.
Since the chill winds of recession first blew-in in 2008, freezing the ‘Celtic Tiger’, people have taken to the streets to protest, often numbering 100,000 – huge for a country with a population of just 4.2 million. But the protests have never taken hold of politics. Until now.
Fianna Fáil is expecting a drubbing come the election, due in March at the latest, while its Green coalition partner is expected to be entirely wiped-out.
Despite this, there is little enthusiasm for the usual alternative. Fine Gael, despite being a descendent of the party that founded the state in 1922 (soon eclipsed by Fianna Fáil), has not seen a resurgence in popularity.
Critics – and many party supporters – blame leader Enda Kenny, who they say is uninspiring, but is something more significant at work than mere personality politics? Are the old ‘civil war’ parties facing the end of their days?
A history of splits
New, or at least new-ish, voices are getting a hearing. The Labour party, long the third wheel in Irish politics, is more popular than ever and Sinn Féin is a growing force now that the IRA has disarmed.
The party romped home in the Donegal by-election last month, winning 40 percent of the vote, ousting Fianna Fáil, whose vote dropped by a staggering 60 percent.
Party president Gerry Adams, a stalwart of elections in the North, has announced his intention to stand in Louth come the general election – and he is hitting a tone that chimes with widespread anti-establishment feeling.
“I want to be part of the necessary fight-back against bad economic policies in both parts of this island and for a fair, decent and united society for all the people of Ireland,” said Adams.
Tommy McKearney, a former IRA prisoner who now works as a trade union activist, is sharply critical of the move.
“It’s an act of desperation on the part of the party to shore up the leadership, but will cost the party dearly,” he says. “Gerry might win a seat but the move will ultimately cost the party in the Republic as Adams will be perceived as a ‘parachute’ candidate from the North,” he told NewsWhip.
McKearney has parted ways with the party but remains set against any return to violence.
The IRA stigma is something of a moveable feast. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael grew out of the IRA in the 1920s. The predecessor of Fine Gael accepted the treaty that partitioned Ireland into two states, the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, while Fianna Fáil rejected it. Most Irish people still want to see Ireland eventually united but there is a growing feeling that a political split that occurred during the 1920s has dominated the nation for too long, producing two virtually identical centre-right political parties and, with them, many feel, an absence of political discourse.
As it currently – formerly? – stands, Irish politics is virtually incomprehensible to outsiders: a combination of localism, family dynasties and plenty of good, old-fashioned clientelism.
There has also been little reason for anyone abroad to cover Irish politics in detail, as one European journalist explains: “When we write about Ireland, it’s typically either the North, the Catholic Church, some other scandal or, even before the crisis started, the economy – mainly because Ireland was touted as an example of how a country should make use of its EU membership, which we’re interested in for our own reasons,” says Nikolina Sajn, a reporter who covers international affairs for Jutarnji List, a daily newspaper in Croatia and who has visited Ireland several times.
Kevin Bean from the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool explains that other factors have historically trumped the traditional left-right battle of ideas in Ireland – but also that any revival will likely be partial as the political spectrum has contracted internationally.
“It’s true that people have always tended to vote in their economic interests, though of course there have been other factors. In fact, the whole historic left-right split that seems so complex today was really about economics. In the last few decades we have seen left and right squeezed of meaning but in Ireland there was never a significant left-right divide anyway. The major parties were divided, certainly, but not along conservative versus socialist or even liberal lines,” he says.
The main beneficiary of the shake-up has been the soft-left Labour party, which is polling at historic highs.
Labour is not a direct descendent of the IRA but many of its top members, including its leader, are former members of the hard-left Workers’ party, which itself grew out of another Irish republican split in 1969 and was allied to the so-called “Official IRA”. The Workers’ party itself split in 1992 and the social democratic wing merged with Labour in 1999.
Labour and Sinn Féin don’t have the field to themselves, though. In the last two years alone at least six new groups have appeared, some more significant than others. The new organisations are coming from left, right and centre.
Some flare-up and disappear almost immediately, such as Amhrán Nua. The party, Irish for “new song” (a reference Amhrán na bhFiann containing “Sinne fianna fáil”) appeared in 2009 and… did nothing much.
Last week another new “nua” popped-up. Fís Nua, meaning “New Vision”, is a new green party and, despite the economy being at the front of everyone’s minds the party’s manifesto mentions global warming before any other issue. It could pick up some votes from environmentalists disheartened by the Green party’s performance in government, but it won’t be alone in trying to tempt former eco-voters: in 2008 former Green Euro MP Patricia McKenna founded a new outfit, the People’s Movement.
Developments on the left, meanwhile, are more concrete than they have been in over two decades. The United Left Alliance, formed some weeks back by the Socialist party, Socialist Workers’ party and the Workers’ party, is expected to take at least one seat at the general election.
Its highest profile candidate, Joe Higgins, is a respected former TD and currently a Euro MP. He is expected to poll well among working class voters in Dublin, something even establishment figures concede in private.
Another ULA candidate, Richard Boyd Barrett, narrowly missed-out on a seat at the last election, something that is all the more remarkable given he stood in the largely well-to-do Dublin seaside suburb of Dún Laoghaire.
Another left group is making noise, too. The One Percent Network was formed by a collection of left groups including the Workers’ Solidarity Movement, a libertarian socialist outfit, and Éirígí, a splinter from Sinn Féin whose name means “arise”.
One Percent Network spokesman Gregor Kerr told NewsWhip the group intended to raise political consciousness.
“One percent refers to the fact that one percent of the population owns 34 percent of country’s wealth – that figure is from a 2007 Bank of Ireland ‘Wealth of the Nations’ report,” he says.
“We [on the left] need to try and do a better job of setting-out our vision for society,” says Kerr. “We need to move from ‘fight against’ to ‘fight for’.”
There have been developments on the right, too. Controversial businessman Declan Ganley, who campaigned against the Lisbon treaty in 2009, has been hinting at starting a new party. It would be his second effort in as many years.
A new pressure group on the right also hopes to see change but its focus is on pushing the existing parties to adopt more conservative policies. The National Forum – originally called the National Alliance, a name rapidly dumped because it was also used by a far-right outfit in the US – founded by broadcaster Marc Coleman, political commentator John McGuirk and David Quinn of Catholic think-tank the Iona Institute, wants to stake out a clear family-oriented conservative space on the political spectrum and push the big parties toward conservative policies.
McGuirk says there is now an appetite for a clear battle of ideas in Ireland: “In the latest [opinion] poll we saw Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael at a historic low of 50 per cent between them. We think this says something in itself. In addition we’re also seeing some left organisations and even Labour to a degree stake out a claim for the future,” he told NewsWhip.
“Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have not been genuinely conservative in policy even if they are conservative in values. We have these two big parties that, in terms of their electoral strategy, have to go hunting around for votes on the left. We want to fill a gap on the right which says, ‘There are votes to be found here, too’.”