Tuesday, October 13, 2015

European Radicals-Ireland

The Global Financial Crisis of 2007, and its impact on debt in European countries, has had a far-reaching impact on politics in Europe, especially in the nations hit by debt. Countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece and Ireland have gone through dramatic political change as a result of the crisis and the response of governments.

But have these changes lasted? As the worst of the crisis passes, have the new parties that popped up hung around, or have they collapsed? The fact is that there are examples that go both ways. Some of the parties have succeeded, and others have failed; this depends on the issues the parties are feeding off, the issues that are salient in the country, and the performance of the parties in the government (if they have been given any power).


Ireland was one of the hardest hit nations by the global financial crisis. Traditionally, it has been governed by the Fianna Fail party, which was formed in 1926. Describing Fianna Fail's position on the issues is not easy; they have been described as 'populist' and 'catch-all'. The traditional Irish opposition is Fine Gael, a party that is similar to Fianna Fail (although their main bit of ideology is 'not Fianna Fail'). Ireland's other significant party up to this point was the Labour Party, which is a traditional European social democratic party, but much electorally weaker than most European social democratic parties (its strongest electoral performance was 20% in 1992).

Fianna Fail governed Ireland almost consistently from 1932 to 1973, with only two breaks of short Fine Gael government when all members of the opposition teamed up. Ireland uses the single transferable vote, but with low district magnitude (between 3-5 members per district; 3.8 on average), this is not especially proportional. This meant that under this period, Fianna Fail either had a small majority of seats or a narrow minority, off 42-50% of the vote.

A more competitive political period began in 1973. At this election, Fianna Fail was defeated, and was replaced by a coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour. This government lasted its full term, before Fianna Fail returned to office in 1977 with a comfortable majority. This government lasted for only a short time; Irish governments at this point were under much pressure, due to the fighting in the North. The candidacy of strong supporters of Northern Ireland's reunification with Ireland attracted some sympathy, which put further pressure on governments, because in tight parliaments governments might need their support.

During the 1980s, five elections took place. All but one resulted in a change of government (from Fianna Fail to Fine Gael-Labour or Fine Gael minority or vice versa). This period ended with the election of a Fianna Fail government in 1987, which served in minority for two years before being re-elected in 1989, this time in coalition with the liberal Progressive Democrats.

In 1992, another election took place. This saw a dramatic increase in seats for the Labour Party, which won 33 seats and 19% of the vote. Fianna Fail was significantly short of a majority, but was nonetheless the largest party by a long way. After a long process, they decided to form a coalition with the Labour Party, which was rather unusual; Labour were traditionally allied with Fianna Fail. This coalition did not last very long, and in 1994 Labour formed a coalition with Fine Gael and the socialist Democratic Left party.

Labour were punished at the 1997 election for their decision to go into government with Fianna Fail. They lost half of their seats. This meant that the incumbent Fine Gael-Labour government would not be able to continue in office, despite gains made by Fine Gael. Fianna Fail teamed up with the Progressive Democrats and a few independents, and Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern was elected Prime Minister.

This coalition was continued after the 2002 election, despite dramatic losses for Fine Gael changing the balance of power somewhat. However, the Progressive Democrats were wiped out in 2007, so Fianna Fail had to deal with the Green Party, which had won a record 6 seats, as well as independents. Shortly after this election, Bertie Ahern was resigned and was replaced by Brian Cowen, the Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister.

Over the next few years, Ireland's economy was placed under serious stress. Irish banks were unstable, and the government passed legislation bailing them out. This, of course, was not cheap, and in order to pay for it the government needed to make cuts to other services. Generous spending promises made in previous years had to be rescinded, and this caused many political headaches for the government, which fell to second place in local and European elections in 2009. The Green Party were wiped out entirely. Ahern was forced to ask for a bailout from the European Union in 2010, further eroding support for the government.

Independents that had backed the government were quickly withdrawing their support, and the Green Party was getting restless. In January 2011, the Green Party formally resigned from the government, and Ahern called an election for 25 February, before resigning as Fianna Fail leader (but not as PM): he was replaced in that capacity by Foreign Minister Micheal Martin.

Martin was placed in a virtually impossible position. Fianna Fail, the party which had finished first in almost every Irish election under the Republic, had a one in front of their vote. They were in third place, behind Fine Gael and Labour. Fine Gael had consistently been in first place since the beginning of the crisis, for the first time in their history. Labour, too, had massively benefited. Strong polling results, including some showing Labour in first place, led the party to start the campaign with hopes of something other than the junior partner in a coalition.

As the campaign begun, though, it became abundantly clear that Fine Gael, under the leadership of Enda Kenny, would win first place by a wide margin; indeed, at some points it looked like Fine Gael would win a majority. A large number of new independents with vague promises of 'new politics', as well as a number of new far-left parties and Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein, as some of you will know, is a party strongly in favour of merging Northern Ireland with the Republic. It has been considered by many to have been the political arm of the Irish Liberation Army, the terrorist group responsible for many bombings and killings in the United Kingdom during the 1970s and 80s. They normally only contested elections for the UK and devolved parliaments in the North, but they started contesting elections in the Republic in 1982. They did not win seats for quite a while, and remained fairly minor up until the economic crisis, at which point their economically leftist views gained traction.

The results of the election saw Fianna Fail poll disastrously. They fell from 41.6% of the vote and 77 seats in 2007 to just 17.5% of the vote and 20 seats, and they went from having at least one member in each constituency to having seats in only 18 of 43 of the constituencies. Fine Gael gained significant number of seats, going from 27.3% and 51 seats to 36% and 76 seats, while Labour made substantial gains, going from 10% and 20 seats to 19.5% and 37 seats; while they made gains, they were well short of Fine Gael. Sinn Fein won 14 seats, a gain of ten, and the new socialist parties and independents won 2.7% and 5 seats.

Independents overall made significant gains from the election. While Fianna Fail had mostly taken the political blame for the crisis, the whole political system was tainted by the crisis. Independents were viewed as anti-politics as usual, and as a result people were motivated to vote for them to protest. In total, 12% of votes were cast for independent candidates. Of course, independent candidates are not a monolith, and the candidates elected were of vaguely different affiliations. Two independents were considered right-wing, five left-wing, five elected on local issues, and two did not fit into any of these categories. A diverse bunch, certainly.

While certain other options were considered, including a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition, it was eventually decided that a Fine Gael-Labour coalition would be best. Opposition to this deal came mostly from within Labour; some members felt that it would be best for Fine Gael to take the fall for implementing harsh economic measures, leaving Labour with a strong run at the next election. Nonetheless, it was decided that Labour would enter government by the party conference.

Labour voters, of course, were not happy with the policy decisions made by the coalition. Neither, it turned out, were Fine Gael voters. While the coalition polled 55.5% at the election, one year later it was closer to 44-46%, and in another year it had sunk to 40%.

The major beneficiaries of this fall were Sinn Fein, who went from 10% to the high teens and low twenties by 2013. With Labour in government with Fine Gael, and therefore unable to convincingly express anti-austerity views, Sinn Fein were placed in the position of anti-austerity party. This was certainly an electorally advantageous one.

Independents also made dramatic gains, both outside the Dail (parliament) and inside it. By 2013, the total number of people who intended to vote 'other' had reached 18-20%. This included the far-left groups, but they were usually very minor. Independents also made gains from the other parties in the Dail. Sixteen members of parties left them to become independent, although some rejoined their old parties or joined new parties later on. Fianna Fail did not gain much, although they returned to the lead for a short period at the start of 2013, which was more due to the drop in Fine Gael's vote than any surge for Fianna Fail.

In 2014, the first national elections took place since 2011. These were for the European Parliament and local councils. These elections would have no actual impact on the government, but they would be a test of whether the dismal poll numbers for Labour and Fine Gael were real. It turned out that they were.

In terms of vote, Fianna Fail came first narrowly, with 22.3%. However, poor preferences from the other parties in Dublin (where their candidate won 12.6% compared to 10.2% for independent Nessa Childers, who received a stronger preference flow from other parties and was elected) and a close call in Midlands-North West (where their candidate was defeated for the last seat by 275 votes, or 0.04%) meant that they only ended up with one seat out of 11, losing two from their already poor result (24.1% of the vote) in 2009.

This is what is meant when certain people characterise STV as only semi-proportional; low district magnitude (on average, 3.7 members per constituency for the European elections) and the impact of transfers can mean that seat results do not necessarily closely match vote results. While this is not especially obvious in large elections, like for the Dail, it is a bit clearer in low-magnitude European elections.

Fianna Fail also ran too many candidates. Their running of two candidates in Midlands-North West was also blamed for the poor result, as only about 61% of the vote from second candidate Thomas Byrne went to number one candidate Pat Gallagher. Had there been only one candidate, it would have been likely that some of Byrne's votes that exhausted would go to Gallagher. Clearly, Fianna Fail still has delusions of its pre-2009 days.

Fine Gael won slightly fewer (425 votes, or 0.02%) votes than Fianna Fail, but nonetheless ended up with four seats. This was mostly due to the result in the South, where Fianna Fail's leading candidate Brian Crowley won 27%. This meant that that too many Fianna Fail votes were tied up with him, and so second Fianna Fail candidate Kieran Hartley was excluded too early. As a result, Fianna Fail's 32% was rewarded with one seat, while Fine Gael's better divided 28% won two seats.

While in terms of parties Sinn Fein finished third, in total independent candidates did better. In total, independents won 19.8% and three seats: one in Dublin and one in Midlands-North West. Independent candidates were good at picking up preferences from other candidates, which gave them an advantage. The average Independent candidate was elected with 13.37% of the vote, compared to 17.18% for the average elected party candidate and an average quota of 21.7%. Clearly, independents had some support in Ireland. This is odd for European elections. Only two other independents were elected in the rest of Europe.

Sinn Fein polled strongly. They won 19.5% (not far off their performance in the North) and three seats. They won one seat in each district, partially thanks to their strategy of running a single candidate which represented a better self-assessment of their support then Fianna Fail's.The three seats allowed Ireland to be one of two nations (the other being Greece) where the far-left group won (equal) first place. This is very strong, considering Ireland has traditionally been a very weak nation for the left.

Labour polled dismally, winning only 5.3% of the vote and no seats, a loss of three. Their vote plummeted by nearly 9%, and none of their candidates even came close to winning a seat. Indeed, they ended up only slightly ahead of the Green Party, which won 4.9% and no seats.

Local elections were similar in terms of vote, although the larger number of seats and the larger magnitude meant that Fianna Fail's first place win was recognised in terms of council seats. As is not unusual in local council elections in many countries, Independents polled strongly. Labour lost Dublin council, and Sinn Fein won the most seats there. A by-election in Dublin South-West saw the far-left Anti-Austerity Alliance win the seat, despite Sinn Fein polling in first place.

The disastrous election results for Labour meant that leader Eamon Gilmore's time was up. He resigned in July 2014, and was replaced by senior minister and long-time Labour Dail member Joan Burton. Burton has so far failed to improve the party's dismal polling, however.

So, about four and a half years after the most dramatic election in Ireland's political history, what has changed? Well, quite a bit. Fine Gael is battered and bruised after a term in government in which they have had to make unpopular decisions, and they will certainly have fewer seats after the next election; the same anti-incumbent tendency that destroyed Fianna Fail in 2011 will have a dramatic impact on Fine Gael. However, as a right-wing party, more of their voters will approve of cuts to public spending.

Labour does not have this lenience from their base. Their junior position in the coalition meant that they were taken along on cuts to public spending disliked by their voters, which has had a dramatic effect on their vote. They are polling in the single digits, and it is probable that they will lose many seats indeed.

Their status as the leading left-wing party will likely be taken by Sinn Fein. As Sinn Fein has no record in government, they will be able to run with a clean record, like SYRIZA in Greece. Their polling has been in the low twenties and high teens, though, and their lack of experience may mean that they run too many or too few candidates to take advantage of their surge in support.

Of course, the Independents will also be an important presence in the new parliament. Polling on independents has been fairly inconsistent, perhaps due to the inclusion of small parties in the question. However, the European and local results suggest that the vast majority of the other vote is for independents. A parliament with significant numbers of independents will present challenges to the government, especially if it does not have a majority. Parties, which usually vote coherently, are easier to manage than large numbers of independents. One way of dealing with them might be pork-barrelling in their districts; this happened in the past when governments depended on independents.

It seems implausible that any single party will come close to a majority, and it certainly seems unlikely that the government will come close to a majority. Fine Gael will likely be the largest party, too, with 25-30%. I see it as likely that there are two options for government; a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail alliance or a Fine Gael-Sinn Fein alliance. Either could include Labour's few members.

Both of these options are very unusual. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are ideologically similar, but have never formed government due to long-held antipathy after the Irish Civil War. A Fine Gael-Sinn Fein deal would be even more controversial, however. The issue would be with Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein are strongly in favour of Northern Ireland becoming a part of the Republic; indeed, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has long been accused of being a member of the Irish Republican Army, a terrorist group. A government in the Republic with a strong position on this issue could endanger the fragile peace (which has become even more fragile in recent months) and thus a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail deal, maybe with Labour, would be the most likely outcome.

In any case, the Irish election demonstrates a case where dramatic political change has been more long-lasting. Fianna Fail are no longer the dominant party they once were. Perhaps this will change, perhaps not; the impact of a likely stint in government as the junior coalition partner is unlikely to help much. The unique part in Ireland is the gain for Independents; perhaps this is the Irish version of the fragmentation that other countries have seen in recent years. Sinn Fein are the version of the new political movement, replacing Labour. They are similar to new movements in Spain and Greece, although the nationalist dimension adds something new to the equation. Ireland is an unusual case of political change, but certainly a dramatic one.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Editor reserves the right to delete any comments on grounds including, but not limited to, irrelevant, offensive and threatening.