As Fine Gael, Labour, and Fianna Fáil, have discovered, the Irish electorate is not loyal, writes Gary Murphy.
IN THE RTÉ studio on Saturday morning, Pat Rabbitte came up with the quip of the 2014 elections when he wryly noted that, even if John the Baptist had been Labour leader, nothing would have persuaded the voters to spare the party.
Sitting across from him in the studio, I was much more interested in his observation that the people don’t protest in large numbers by rampaging down Grafton St breaking windows, but rather vent their vengeance in the ballot box. And Rabbitte well knows this, as the Government in which he serves sits in office because of the vengeance of those same voters.
In February 2011, the voters changed the nature of politics forever when inflicting the mother of all electoral defeats on Fianna Fáil, reducing Ireland’s natural party of government to a rump of 20 seats and 17% of the vote. However, while angered at the economic collapse, the voter didn’t seek original solutions but rather went to a traditional alternative it had tried before — a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour.
The voters at Friday’s election have sent a chilling message to Fine Gael and to Labour in particular. Put bluntly, it is that we’ve given you more than three years to sort out this mess. You haven’t done it. Your time is drawing near.
The problem for the Coalition is that it has basically been a crisis government in an era where the electorate is not a patient beast. The government was elected, in essence, because it was not Fianna Fáil. It had not wrecked the country and it offered hope to a country beaten down by debt, recession, and austerity.
The austerity remains and all the signs are that the electorate are sick of it. The big question is where the electorate are going to turn for their political solutions.
The alternatives are a Fianna Fáil party gingerly but somewhat impressively coming back to life; an ultra-confident and aggressive Sinn Féin; and a miasma of Independents mostly displaying a distinctly red hue. On the sidelines remaining stubbornly outside the pitch, lies a loose collection of right-wing Independents going under the moniker of the Reform Alliance but who don’t seem to want to show their wares to the public.
The overwhelming concern of the electorate remains the economy. Social concerns are peripheral. There is no evidence that abortion can be a galvanising force for any significant proportion of the population. And a liberalising social agenda based around the legalisation of gay marriage is not going to save Labour.
Nor is party loyaltyany saviour. The ties that bound significant amounts of the electorate to the parties, particularly Fianna Fáil, no longer exist. Up to the 2002 general election, there was a clear stability to the party system. Fianna Fáil would receive in and around 40% of the vote, Fine Gael would get a third, and with Labour’s 10% that gave us two alternative governments.
The implosion of the Fine Gael vote at the 2002 general election, when it was reduced to 22.5% of the vote and gained only three seats in Dublin, was the first sign of an electorate unchaining itself from the seeming iron hand of the party system.
They finally threw off the leashes of this system at the 2011 general election and Friday’s results have copperfastened the arrival of a promiscuous electorate willing to look at any possibility.
When Fianna Fáil embraced coalition politics in 1989, the possibility existed that it could be in perpetual government. This was particularly the case once Bertie Ahern, unlike Charles Haughey and Albert Reynolds, actually decided to make coalition government work. The darkness of the economic crash changed the whole nature of the party system and of the electoral game.
And now the nation seemingly turns its lonely eyes to Sinn Féin. Mary Lou McDonald, the star of the Sinn Féin show, stridently states that the party will only enter government if it can be assured that it can get its platform and manifesto enacted. The opposition benches can be lonely places, however, for politicians as ambitious as Ms McDonald, and people who vote for Sinn Féin will expect the party to enter government if they have the numbers after the next general election, even as a junior partner.
The people may not like austerity but they certainly like coalitions. And they will expect Sinn Féin to be party to a coalition government. If the party stays out of government after the next general election, having had within its grasp the opportunity to make a difference in power, it will find that the electorate might not be willing to give it another opportunity.
Could such a coalition include Fianna Fáil? Blamed for our economic Armageddon, the local election results seem to show an electorate in slightly forgiving mode when it comes to the Soldiers of Destiny. Notwithstanding its relatively poor results in Dublin including, if it is honest, a deeply disappointing by-election result, Fianna Fáil is clearly not the toxic brand it was three years ago.
It is, as Micheál Martin says, in a better position than is was but has not capitalised to any great extent on the dissatisfaction with both government parties. Weak outings in by-elections and in the European elections in Dublin and Midlands-North West show it still has much work to do when it comes to the next general election.
Still, as of now, it is relevant in Irish politics.
The relevance of Labour is somewhat more questionable. The party has had deeply disappointing election results before, including, famously, coming ninth in the Dublin West by-election of 1996, while it only won 12 seats in the 1987 general election. It has, however, always shown a striking resilience to bounce back from adversity.
LABOUR’S big problem, this time however, is that it never had to worry about Sinn Féin as it clearly does now.
It is also suffering from what is clearly a tired cadre of senior politicians in a cabinet that, for many, seems more relevant to the Ireland of 1994 than 2014. On these terrible results in all three electoral contests, the future of the party, three years after its best ever results, looks bleak.
Fine Gael, although holding its seat in Longford-Westmeath, will be worried about its showing. Assuming that it had seen off Fianna Fáil after the 2011 election, Fine Gael strategists must look with some despair at the fact that Fianna Fáil outpolled it at local level.
It will look at the 2011 general election result with some trepidation, in that if such a meltdown can happen to Fianna Fáil it could certainly happen to them. The coping classes have no loyalty and Fine Gael would be foolish to assume that they will vote for it come the next general election. Perhaps that explains the Taoiseach’s tetchiness in interviews since the weekend. Moreover, if Labour continues to implode electorally, the search for a coalition partner will prove to be a difficult one for Fine Gael.
One thing is for sure: It won’t find such partners among the ranks of the Independents. In a vain search for the politics of nirvana which it will never find, elements of the electorate are increasingly happy to vote Independent and are likely to do so in even greater numbers at the next election. Such is the intellectual diffusion of Independents, however, that no party will want to rely on them to form and produce a stable government.
The ultimate result of Friday’s vote is that Ireland now has a party system that evinces no loyalty or stability. Uncertain times for all parties lie ahead as this government faces into even more economic and political uncertainty over the next 12 months.
* Gary Murphy is associate professor of Politics and head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University.
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