Monday, March 07, 2011

Electoral Revolution in Ireland

Electoral Revolution in Ireland
Brian Ó Broin

There's so much uproar in the Middle East right now that an American observer of international affairs might be forgiven for missing the quiet revolution that occurred over the weekend in Ireland, whose government suffered the greatest electoral setback ever seen by ruling parties since the Irish state was founded in 1922, and whose left-wing Irish-nationalist party Sinn Féin had its greatest electoral success since it entered the Irish parliament in 1997.

The dominant government party, Fianna Fáil, which came into existence as a splinter group of Sinn Féin in 1926 and ended up governing modern Ireland for most of the following 85 years, has now been virtually annihilated, and the two principal opposition parties have now entered talks to form a coalition government. Fianna Fáil, which took 77 of the Irish parliament's 166 seats in the last election of 2007 and formed a coalition government with the very-small Green Party, has been left with twenty seats in the next parliament, while the two intending government parties hold a combined 111.

This election result, much like the economic collapse of Ireland in the last three years, seems to have surprised Fianna Fáil, which presided over Ireland's unprecedented rise during the "Celtic Tiger" period of the last fifteen years. Unfortunately, having tied themselves to the Celtic Tiger and its brash, spendthrift ways, the party now remains indelibly associated with the period, and the Irish population, now a little ashamed of their spree, seems keen to abandon all of its trappings.

It didn't help that, during those recent heady days of plenty, Fianna Fáil politicians fostered close friendships with property developers and the private bankers who funded much of the property bubble that underpinned the Celtic Tiger's success. When the bubble burst and the banks collapsed, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party chose to guarantee the banks' debts using state money. With the country then teetering on the brink of complete collapse in December of 2010, the government had no choice but to accept vast loans, at punishing interest rates, from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. This, and the increasingly embattled situation of Fianna Fáil's leader Brian Cowen, was finally too much for the Green Party, whose resignation from government in January precipitated this weekend's election.

Too late, however. The Green Party lost all six of its parliamentary representatives in the election and is likely to disappear completely from the Irish political landscape. Fianna Fáil is hanging on by the fingernails.

The new government will likely be made up of two establishment parties of the center-right and the left, but certainly the most underreported event of this election is the seismic shift of voters away from the establishment parties to independent candidates and Sinn Féin, a strongly nationalist party so tarred with extremism that its members were forbidden to speak on Irish radio and television until 1993. Sinn Féin and independent representatives will take 29 seats in the new parliament, well outnumbering Fianna Fáil.

The change represents a territorial takeover also. Fianna Fáil are likely to lose all but one of their seats in Dublin, which is so populous that it returns nearly a third of Ireland's parliamentary seats. Several rural counties like Sligo, Leitrim, and Roscommon have no Fianna Fáil representation at all. Sinn Féin, meanwhile, who had no representatives in 1997 and only six until this election, now have fourteen representatives spread around the country.

Nor is this anomalous. Sinn Féin have been steadily rising in electoral polls since they first took a seat in Ireland's Dáil (parliament) in 1997, and they now command 12.5% of the Irish vote. Young, organized, energetic, Gaelic-speaking representatives like Pearse Doherty from Donegal, with strong Eurosceptic credentials and a determination to protect Irish sovereignty, will be a considerable thorn in the side of the new government, which, not yet formed, is already under pressure to renegotiate those controversial loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Fine Gael and Labour, the two intending government parties, are long established centrists and pro-Europeans, and such a renegotiation is therefore unlikely. With the routed Fianna Fáil and another nineteen disorganized independents or niche candidates on the opposition benches, the only credible parliamentary opposition left is Sinn Féin, who will doubtless use this unique opportunity to encourage popular anger towards the government and portray them as out-of-touch establishmentarians. Unless the Irish economy takes a dramatic turn for the better, then, there is no doubt that Sinn Féin will emerge as Ireland's third-largest party, perhaps within a matter of months. For several decades, Sinn Féin's unofficial (and much-derided) motto has been the Gaelic "Tiocfaidh ár Lá" ("Our Day Will Come"), but it now seems, to the amazement of many, that their day has actually arrived.

Dr. Brian Ó Broin,
Dept of English
William Paterson University
Dr. Brian Ó Broin teaches linguistics and medieval literature at William Paterson University.


Thursday, March 03, 2011

Scott Walker agus na Ceardchumainn / Scott Walker and the Unions

My latest article in Beo is about the showdown in Wisconsin's capital.

San alt is déanaí uaim in Beo, déanaim anailís ar an scliúchas idir an nGobharnóir Scott Walker agus Ceardchumainn na Múinteoirí.