The political landscape in Ireland is undergoing its greatest change since the foundation of the State in 1922.
Indeed, the basic two party system which has governed the country since then is apparently about to come to an end. For decades, the country has been dominated by the two parties which emerged from the Irish Civil War, a conflict fought over the Treaty with the withdrawing British.
These two were Fine Gael (FG), the party associated with those who supported the Treaty and Fianna Fail (FF), the party associated with those who didn’t. Power in Ireland was held by either of these two, either on its own, or increasingly in recent years, with a coalition partner, usually the Labour party. So it was effectively a ‘two and half party system’, with other much smaller parties such as the Greens and Progressive Democrats appearing and then disappearing.
Now, however, this system is crumbling and is being replaced by a realignment of the system along a left to right divide, similar to the rest of Europe or the United States, as well as a drift of voters towards a huge number of independents and even hard left parties such as the Socialist Party, and People Before Profit.
And the latest polls point to a continuation of this. The big new element is the rise of Sinn Fein, which is at 22% in opinion polls and is now effectively the largest party, just ahead of Fianna Fail (FF). Sinn Fein's rise has been fueled by a radical past and non-corrupt image, and the party has tapped into the feeling of alienation of so many voters from mainstream politics.
Sinn Fein (SF) has taken the soft left support of the Labour party, which has completely collapsed and is at 6%, after a period of implementing tough policies in Government. However, Sinn Fein is also eating into FF support, especially in working class areas, and is presenting itself as the second big party – and the real Republican party.
The latest Fianna Fail poll figure of 21% is actually quite good, given their utter annihilation after the economic collapse of 2008-2010, but it is an unchanging figure and shows that that they will not soon, or perhaps ever, get back to anything like where they once were as the dominant party in Irish politics.
FF has no TDs in Dublin, for example. However, if they could get over their loathing for each other, FF and SF could form a Government, but it is most unlikely.
Meanwhile, Fine Gael is at 19%, which is extraordinary given the amazing job they have done in turning the economy around and stabilizing the nation’s finances. Only a year ago, they were talking about winning ‘back to back’ elections for the first time in the party’s history.
All that talk is gone now. Fine Gael’s decline is partly driven by the onward disintegration of the political landscape generally, but is also accelerated by FG’s terrible sense of strategy and presentation, allowing relatively small scandals to dominate the media agenda and distract from the Government’s good work on the economy.
This clumsy strategy was most evident in the deeply flawed attempt to introduce a water tax, with the creation of an overpaid quango and wildly varying speculation upon the amounts that struggling families would be paying.
The water charges fiasco has been the straw that broke the camel's back for a population fatigued by austerity – despite the bright prospects on the horizon. It is seen as ‘a tax too far’, and a utility which is being rolled out by an over-sized quango and which could be privatized in the future.
But it is more fundamental than that, as is evident by the tens of thousands of angry protestors that it has brought onto the streets, along with various hard left elements.
The current upheaval is the long dormant and understandable rage of the people at the crippling bank bailout, the austerity program, the endless charges and stealth taxes and the fact that the Irish State wasn’t allowed by the IMF and the European Union to burn the bondholders of their defunct banks.
Throw in the lavish expenses of Ireland’s cushy politicians, and continuing stroke politics and cronyism, and you have a toxic mix, and this has all contributed to the disintegration and realignment of the political landscape.
The main parties are under serious attack and even together FF and FG could not form a Government. The big question now is whether these two parties should get over their Civil War origins and competing histories and simply coalesce or at least go into coalition with each other – especially if middle Ireland is demanding that they do so, to keep out the radical nightmare of Sinn Fein and the hard left smaller parties. FF and FG are, after all, almost identical in their policies.
They are both ‘right of centre’, or centrist, and only their political representatives and actual memberships are holding back such a merger. This would be an amazing consequence of the changes underway, although such a merger is still only a theory.
In many ways, Ireland is only playing catch-up. The rise in the vote of Sinn Fein and the hard left parties, and the swelling protests against austerity, with some of them becoming militant and disruptive, are only a mirror of what has been happening for some time in the rest of Europe.
For years, it was said with admiration, and sometimes disdain, that the Irish were ‘not like the Greeks or Spanish.’ They ‘didn’t take to the streets and riot, and disrupt the everyday routines of politicians. And they still vote for the mainstream political parties.’ But now, all that is changing.