Ireland: Status quo prevails after elections

Issue 

The Fianna Fail party of current Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern won a resounding victory in the May 24 elections with 41% of the vote. FF, which has held power for 10 years, fell five seats short of an outright majority. Ahern will likely form a centre-right coalition with the right-wing Progressive Democrats (PD) and independents, although there are also reports of contact with the Greens about forming a coalition. There is a June 14 deadline for the formation of the incoming government.

Despite early opinion polls indicating there was a mood for change, FF managed to convince voters to stick with them, primarily through fostering fear that a change in government would bring the economic boom of the so-called Celtic Tiger to a halt. The main opposition party, the centrist Fine Gael (FG), campaigned in an alliance with Labour and the Greens. During the campaign both major parties ruled out forming a coalition government with Sinn Fein.

FG was the only party to gain significantly; the results of the smaller parties were squeezed by the two major parties. While most polls had indicated a big rise in support for SF, and a possible doubling of their seats to 10, the party returned only four TDs (members of parliament), although its overall vote actually increased slightly. Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins lost his Dublin West seat, and the Greens didn't increase their six seats. The PD's vote collapsed, retaining only two of its six seats.

The economy was the key factor in the election, with FF's support coming from those who have benefited from Ireland's economic growth — and those who are hoping desperately that some of this new wealth may trickle down to them in the future. Not everyone has benefited from economic growth — the European Anti-Poverty Network points out that "Poverty levels in Ireland are still among the highest in the EU despite having the second highest GDP in the EU".

According to the Central Statistics Office's 2006 report Measuring Ireland's Progress, over 7% of the population lives in consistent poverty and 20% are at risk of poverty. The economic boom has mean that housing is unaffordable for thousands of families.

Sinn Fein campaigned for a free, universal health-care system; for the provision of social housing as a basic right for all; and for increased, accessible childcare services. Ending the partition of Ireland, opposition to the war in Iraq and environmental sustainability were also part of the party's election platform. The recent developments in the northern six counties, where Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party formed a power-sharing government in May, ending direct rule by London, seemed to have little impact on the elections. The Irish corporate media has always downplayed Sinn Fein's role in the northern "peace process", crediting Ahern and British PM Tony Blair for their "leadership".

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