Irish elections: another blow for austerity politics?

Later this week, we have the prospect of an exciting election. No, not the EU in/out, shake Boris all about, charade. There the choice turns out to be little choice. Either Cameron’s neo-liberal Europe or Farage’s neo-liberal globalism grimly clinging on to American coattails masquerading as ‘independence’. Nor for that matter, the playground primary politics of the States, where big money, ideological consensus and corporate desire always win out eventually.

No, I’m talking about the interesting election, the vote for the 32nd Irish Dail (parliament) that takes place this coming Friday. You may not have heard about it as the British media are maintaining a wall of silence around it. This is partly because they have a blind spot for the UK’s nearest neighbour, still miffed by 1921 maybe. But across the Celtic Sea there’s potentially a perfect storm for the media, an election that’s really too close to call, full of personality politics yet an exciting, nail-biting, cliffhanger that the pundits were predicting and the media slavering over last April in the UK but which our Victorian voting system turned into the dampest of damp squibs.

Dail constituencies
Dail constituencies

The lack of coverage in the UK is also partly due to the Irish using what the British media regard as an outlandish and incomprehensible single transferable vote PR system. No London journalist can understand this. In Ireland there are 40 constituencies, each returning from three to five deputies, to make a total of 158 (a reduction of eight this time as the Irish, like many others these days, find democracy a bit expensive and are looking for ways to reduce its cost.)

The outgoing Irish Government is a coalition of Fine Gael (FG) (on the right, economically neo-liberal) and the centrist Labour Party (traditionally social democratic but Blairite and also neo-liberal). They took over in 2011 from a discredited coalition of the old governing party Fianna Fail (FF – also centre-right) and the Greens (more centrist than the British variety). FF and the Greens suffered badly from being in government when the Irish banking and property bubble burst in 2007/08. This was followed by various corruption scandals and swingeing austerity policies.

outcome of the 2011 election

Fianna Fail lost half its support in 2011
Fianna Fail lost half its support in 2011

Not surprisingly FG/Labour have continued the same austerity policies imposed on Ireland by the European Central Bank. Although the Irish economy is now among the fastest growing in Europe the most vulnerable have as elsewhere paid a high price and the governing coalition is languishing in the polls. In the latest batch this past weekend FG was on 29% (down from 36% in 2011). Meanwhile, Labour is in free-fall, its support collapsing from 19% five years ago to just 6% now. It faces the prospect of a disastrous Lib Dem style wipe-out this week. FF has been unable to benefit from the haemorrhage of Government support and was polling around 21% (up just four points from its catastrophic lowest ever score in 2011) at the weekend. However, alone among the bigger parties, support for FF does seem to be on the rise. The party may have some momentum and still cause a surprise.

Another reason the British media ignore the Irish Republic is that no credible far right/anti-European/populist party exists for them to witter on about. On the contrary, there’s a range of leftist anti-austerity candidates and parties on offer, a gaggle that’s seen its support grow since 2011. With a combined showing in the polls of around 30% compared with the government’s 35% they have a real chance to increase their representation and at least get a voice in any coalition government. Like the Spanish election before Christmas and the rise of Podemos, the Irish left, though much more fragmented, is poised to drive another nail into the coffin of neo-liberal austerity politics.

Anti-austerity politics in Ireland come in various shapes and sizes. First, we have Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein has risen to become the fourth largest party in the Dail and is set to be the third largest by next week. It’s followed a pattern familiar to its old comrades in arms of the early 1970s in Official Sinn Fein, which became the Workers Party, then Democratic Left and finally merged with Irish Labour. In the journey from republicanism to socialism, Sinn Fein has been championing a broad anti-austerity approach. It’s tried to benefit from campaigns against water charges, which is still causing major ripples in Ireland. SF’s poll ratings aren’t as high as they were a year or two back when they threatened to dislodge FF as Ireland’s second party. But, at 17%, support remains well above the 10% of 2011.

Further to the left is the Anti Austerity Alliance (AAA) and People Before Profit (PBP) alliance. The core of the AAA is the Socialist Party and that of the PBP the Socialist Workers Party. While their Trotskyite chums struggle to get traction in Britain, they’re polling around 4-5% in Ireland. This is twice their score of 2011, when they still managed to nab a handful of seats (although they’re contesting more seats this time).

Section of massive anti-austerity march in Dublin last Saturday
Section of massive anti-austerity march in Dublin last Saturday

And then there’s Independents. Unlike Cornwall, Independents in Ireland are more likely to lean to the left than the right. They also tend to poll well at the Dail level, benefiting from the voting system and winning 15 seats in 2011. This time there’s a bewildering variety of Independents. Some Dail deputies have jumped from their party ships and become Independents (changing tickets is much more common in Ireland than the UK). This has particularly affected the Labour Party, as its deputies flee the oncoming car crash. Around 20 Independents are lining up explicitly with SF and AAA/PBP and standing under the Right2Change banner, a movement that grew out of the water charges campaign. In total Independents are polling around 14%, which is the same as they did in 2011.

Add to this mix two new parties – Renua (a conservative party on 2-3% of the poll) and the Social Democrats (close to Labour and polling 3-4%) – plus a recovering Green Party (on 2-4%) and one thing is clear. It’s 99% certain that no single party will gain a majority in the 32nd Dail. Even a low poll score doesn’t mean seats are out of sight given the vagaries of vote transfers, which might still come to the rescue of the Labour Party. Meanwhile, predicting transfers in a multi-party and fluid system where old loyalties are breaking down is becoming increasingly difficult. Although for an attempt to analyse the most recent polls that will keep even the most anorakish of election nerds content for hours see here.

The outcome is likely to be an even more fragmented and fractious Dail. Like Spain, this means that the post-election manoeuvring will be as fascinating as the election itself. Not that, also like Spain, you’ll read much about it in the British press. They’re concerned not to tax our brains and will instead be concentrating on simpler yes/no questions and the winner takes all US primaries.

[P.S. Today’s Guardian had three and a quarter pages on Boris and the EU referendum, a full page on the US primaries but nothing at all about an Irish election which takes place in just four days time.]

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