After the shortest official election campaign in the nation’s history – a mere 23 days – the Irish election has thrown the country into uncertainty. With 552 candidates competing for 157 seats across 40 constituencies, no party or coalition option has emerged as the clear winner. A number of recounts are underway but a fresh election may be needed to find a government. Comparisons are already being made with Spain, where four parties have not been able to form a stable government since elections held in December. Never before has an Irish election delivered such a diverse and ambiguous result.
In a way, the two big beasts of Irish politics, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have reassumed their traditional positions as the two largest parliamentary parties. Centre-right Fine Gael remains the largest party, despite losing almost a third of its parliamentary seats. Its message of “keeping the recovery going” is deemed to largely have been met with derision by an electorate still feeling the effects of economic crisis.
Meanwhile, centrist Fianna Fáil seems to be experiencing a rehabilitation. In government before and during the economic crisis, the party suffered near wipeout in the 2011 election, but has more than doubled its seats this time round. With both hovering at around 20% of the vote (rather than the 35%+ usually needed to form a coalition with one or more of the other smaller parties) it seems a union of these two parties is the only option. However, there remains significant opposition to working together. The two trace their roots to opposing sides in the Irish civil war of 1922.
As had been expected, Labour, the outgoing junior coalition partner, was decimated at the polls. The party has taken much of the blame for the austerity imposed over the past five years. Having won 37 seats in 2011, it is now struggling even to hold on to the seven needed to secure parliamentary speaking rights. Sinn Féin continues its trajectory of growth in the Republic, increasing its seat numbers from 14 to at least 22. With less than 15% of first preference votes, however, there may be some disappointment that the party did not do better. Pre-election polls suggested around 20% was possible. The party has also ruled out entering into a coalition with either of the two biggest parties.
Outside these four main parties, however, the election has also accelerated the fragmentation of the Irish party system with a host of small parties and independents now occupying almost 20% of seats. Two small left groupings, the Social Democrats and the Anti-Austerity Alliance – People Before Profit coalition join the Green Party as the smaller parties in the chamber. But as elsewhere in Europe, a strong anti-political party vote has also emerged in the form of an array of non-aligned parliamentarians.
If and when a new administration takes office, it will face some immediate problems. The British referendum on EU membership has seismic implications for Ireland, not least for trade and cross-border issues on the island. With the June EU referendum looming, as well as elections to the devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland in May, the potential for major geopolitical changes looms large. The Irish state is also fast approaching the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising in late March. This is widely regarded as a pivotal moment for the Irish independence movement and a carefully managed official state programme of events will take place, with many other commemorative events being organised by other parties seeking to stake a claim. Until a coalition deal can be struck, the political colour or colours of the government that will lead the commemorations is far from clear.
About the author: Muiris MacCarthaigh is lecturer in Politics and Public Administration , Queen’s University Belfast
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