80,000 people marched in Dublin on February 20 to call for a "government of change" ahead of the February 26 elections. Photo via An Phoblacht.
In a sign of popular anger, the combined vote of the two parties that have long dominated the southern Irish state — Fine Gael (FG) and Fianna Fail (FF) — has fallen below 50% for the first time in Irish electoral history.
FG's coalition partner, Labour, was also severely punished, with its seats cut by almost four-fifths. Anti-austerity forces, however, received record votes in February 26 elections to the Dail (parliament) in the state made up of 26 of Ireland's 32 counties.
“Driving towards the RDS along the tree-lined Ailesbury Road — the second-most expensive square on the Irish Monopoly board game — it's clear that the 1% are behind Fine Gael,” Mark Moloney wrote in An Phoblacht, the paper of anti-austerity party Sinn Fein.
“Billboards with Fine Gael TD [member of Ireland's parliament, the Dail] Eoghan Murphy's face stare out above the hedged gardens.
“Twenty minutes earlier, I had passed similar billboards for Sinn Fein along the N81 but they stood in the gardens of council estates on the fringes of the sprawling suburb of Tallaght.
“Within the first few minutes of ballot boxes opening it became clear that the wrath of working-class communities, battered by austerity, was being wrought on the Labour Party.
“The Golden Circles, insulated by their pals and patrons in Fine Gael, had remained loyal to the [FG] Blueshirts ...”
Austerity parties punished
The elections left no party with the numbers to form government. This potentially paves the way for an unprecedented FG-FF “grand coalition” — requiring both parties putting aside historic hostility — or possibly new elections.
Moloney noted: “Fianna Fail's and Fine Gael's refusal to enter into a coalition government with each other is not due to a historical quirk. They know very well that such an arrangement will expose them for all to see as ideologically identical parties of boom and bust politics.
“There is still not a clear Left/Right divide in the politics of the state but it is getting ever closer.”
Despite ongoing support from “the Golden Circles”, FG's vote fell more than 10%, from 36.1% to 25.5% (from 66 seats to 50). Labour suffered more severe punishment for abandoning its reputation as a progressive party to join the pro-austerity FG government, falling from 19.4% to just 6.6% (from 33 seats to seven).
The elections came after nine years of austerity measures, in which ordinary people were made to pay to bail out private banks responsible for the economic crisis.
An Irish Examiner article in July last year reported: “The eight austerity budgets between 2008 and 2014 involved €18.5bn in public-spending cuts and €12bn in tax-raising (revenue) measures. Key public services, in particular health and housing, have been weakened as a result.
“Public service staff have been reduced by 10% (37,500). Health spending has been cut by 27% since 2008, resulting in an 81% increase in the number of patients waiting on trolleys and chairs in emergency departments…
“Funding for local authority housing was cut from €1.3bn, in 2007, to just €83m, in 2013. This meant a loss of 25,000 social-housing units. This is a major contribution to the homelessness crisis, with 1,000 children and 500 families now living in emergency accommodation in Dublin. Because of the decision to prioritise bank recapitalisation and developer debt write-down, homeowner mortgage arrears have escalated ...
“The cuts to welfare have had devastating impacts [and] charges were introduced where they did not exist before — putting a further burden on lower-income households … The child-poverty rate rose from 18%, in 2008, to 29.1%, in 2013.”
The article pointed out this led to a new wave of forced emigration, noting: “Almost 10% of Irish young people emigrated during the recession and emigration worsened as austerity intensified. It rose from 20,000, in 2009, to 50,000, in 2013. Without emigration, the unemployment rate would be 20%.”
However, it also led to the rise of Ireland's largest social movement for decades, against new water charges. The movement has combined huge demonstrations with civil disobedience in a campaign that crystallised anti-austerity anger.
With FF's role in imposing austerity when in government still fresh in voters' memories, the main opposition party saw only a minor recovery in its vote after the drubbing it received in 2011.
In 2011, the FF vote collapsed from 41.6% to 17.4% (falling from 71 seats to just 20). This time the party that, with FG, has alternated in power for the past 80 years, recovered slightly to 24.3% of the vote, though their seat tally rose to 44.
On the left, Sinn Fein's seat tally rose from 14 to 23. Its share of the popular vote rose from 9.9% to 13.8% — less than the close to 20% the party had polled at one point, but clearly continuing the republican party's rise in Ireland's south. It also consolidates the group's position as the largest party across all of Ireland, north and south.
Socialist candidates from the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit ticket also benefitted from anger at austerity and “politics as usual”, winning six seats and 3.9% of the vote. The now-defunct United Left Alliance, of which the forces in the AAA and PBP were major parts, won four seats and 2.2% of the vote in 2011.
Workers and Unemployed Action, part of the ULA in 2011, retained its one seat. Former ULA TD Clare Daly, who ran with Independents 4 Change, was also re-elected. The anti-austerity Independents 4 Change won four seats all up.
An important intervention into the elections came from Right2Change, set up by forces involved in the Right2Water group leading the mass movement against water charges.
Consulting with unions, social sectors and left groups, Right2Change drew up an anti-austerity policy principles that aimed at laying the basis for a new, progressive government. Altogether, 106 candidates signed up to the Right2Change policy principles.
On February 20, six days before the election, 80,000 people marched in Dublin in a Right2Change-organised demonstration in support of an anti-austerity government.
People Before Profit said of the results: “The election has thrown the political establishment into crisis. Despite a highly orchestrated campaign promoted by the political elite and their media allies about Ireland's success story, the people have delivered a massive blow to the pro-austerity agenda…
“This election is truly a political earthquake. The old civil war two and a half parties system has imploded, the political establishment now face a desperate choice.”
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said: “The big story in this election is the ongoing realignment of Irish politics and the massive strides forward for Sinn Fein, other parties and Independents.
“Fianna Fail and Fine Gael no longer command a majority of support. These parties cannot and will not deliver the changes required in health and housing. They will not stand up for the interests of citizens and they will set aside the election slogans and promises and revert to type.
“It is now clear that a progressive alternative exists, and has grown in electoral strength. Sinn Féin will work with those elected on the Right2Change platform and other progressives to determine how best to use our increased mandates for fairness, growth, jobs and investment in public services.”
Adams made it clear Sinn Fein would not join a government headed by either FG or FF, saying: “We aren't going to go [into government] and betray our electorate and betray the other people who need a progressive government.
“We are not going to go in and prop up a regressive and negative old conservative government, whatever the particular party political complexion.”
Despite winning nine extra seats compared to 2011, Sinn Fein's popular vote was smaller than earlier polls indicated it could win.
A large part of this can be put down to the savage media campaign targeting the party. Much of this involved a sustained, but selective and distorted raking up of the ghosts of the “Troubles” that wracked the six counties occupied by Britain in Ireland's north.
In a February 25 Irish Sun piece, Oliver Callan wrote: “While everyone in the media failed to predict the FG-FF alliance now expected, it has been a dreadful election for journalism in worse ways.
“The most alarming feature has been the ferocious campaign against Sinn Fein. The State has never witnessed such a biased agenda across all media organisations against a political party …
“At best, subjective opinions on Adams' performance in debates and interviews were passed off as hard news.
“At worst, the outburst of gangland crime in Dublin was directly linked to the party. Some commentary suggested a vote for Sinn Fein was a vote for drug dealers. Another Sunday newspaper report on Mary Lou [McDonald] was filled with such scathing anti-Sinn Fein sentiment, it bordered on sexism …
“A detailed analysis of the anti-Sinn Fein editorialising over the past three weeks would make a very interesting thesis for any media students. It had a significant negative effect on opinion polls.”
Callan noted: “The media class has a sneering attitude that those who vote for Adams' party are more ill-informed than the average centre-right FF/FG voter. There is also a seldom-challenged view that Adams is a liability for the party on the canvass, which has zero basis in fact.
“Despite these sheep-like views, support for Sinn Fein has grown in every election since the 1990s. Electoral success came even though there is no other party leader subjected so intensely to the same repeated questioning quite like Adams …
“The future of the print journalism that so despises the party is in serious peril, but Sinn Fein isn't going away you know.”
With such disillusionment and social struggles of unprecedented strength, whether a “grand coalition” is formed or new elections are held, it is clear politics in Ireland will not be same — and that people want change.