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State of the Left - Ireland

Ireland’s ‘new normal’ politics

Eoin O'Malley - 13 January 2016

An insurgency of independents and anti-establishment parties could lead to a period of instability following Ireland’s forthcoming election

It was famously noted about Ireland that it does not have a policy space, it has a policy dot. The two major parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were conservative, centrist parties who preferred pragmatism over ideology, and were virtually indistinguishable to outsiders in policy terms. Even the Labour party was not much different in policy terms. That is probably less true now than it was. In the last 30 years new parties have emerged that were clearly ideological in outlook. The Irish general election, likely to be called held at the end of February, will feature a party on the right promising a flat tax and many on the left a wealth tax. It looks like a clear left-right divide. Fianna Fáil recently declared itself a centre-left party, and tried to portray Fine Gael as rightwing. Surveys show that whereas support for the main parties used to be heterogeneous in their social bases, now Fine Gael is clearly a party of the middle class and Sinn Féin a party of the working class. Has Irish politics become ‘normal’?

It has and it hasn’t. One of the features we can see in many European countries, particularly those most affected by the economic crisis is that, while parties still campaign on left-right terms, this dimension appears to be less important to voters. In the UK the willingness of former Labour supporters to vote for the UK Independence party demonstrates this.

Even within the left and the right new parties are emerging to challenge older, established parties. Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are the most prominent examples of this, but in Ireland we can see the growth of what are sometimes called populist parties. Sinn Féin has benefited from the crisis to go from being a small, nationalist fringe party in 2007 to challenging to become the main opposition party in 2016.

So Ireland is normal in European terms, but it is a new normal. Labour and Fine Gael, nominally parties of the left and right, will be going into the upcoming campaign seeking re-election. Labour has already ruled out coalition with Sinn Féin and other parties claiming to be on the left. The new parties and groups emerging do not seem to be ideologically distinct. The Social Democrats could fit comfortably with the Green or Labour parties. Renua is firmly planted in an ideological space occupied by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The Independent Alliance is as diverse a political group as Ireland is likely to produce. Rather than making ideologically distinctive appeals, these parties claim to distinguish themselves in terms of ‘new politics’. The new divide in Irish (and European) politics being not between left and right, but between establishment and anti-establishment parties.

For instance some of the Irish challengers rail against what they see as the tyranny of the whip in large parties. Potential voters seem to agree. Of those supporting independents or small parties, 26 per cent claim their principal reason for supporting independents is that they do not trust large parties as. This reflects a more general disaffection: the European Social Survey (2012 wave six) shows parties are distrusted by 85 per cent of Irish respondents.

The splintering of support means there seems to be only one possible candidate for Taoiseach (prime minister), the incumbent Enda Kenny. But just because he is the only plausible candidate will not make it easy for him to form a government. This distrust in parties in general, and especially the established ones, means that after the next election there will be a plethora of small groupings in the Dáil (parliament). It is likely that the outgoing government of Fine Gael and Labour will lose a substantial number of seats. To get re-elected they will require the support of either Fianna Fáil (which for a number of reasons will not happen this time), micro parties or independents. These parties might not be as different as they like to portray, but because they have campaigned against the establishment parties it will be difficult for them to support any government led by them.

The general levels of support of each party in the upcoming election are reasonably easy to predict, but how these are converted into seats – and, as in Spain, whether a government will be easily formed – is not. The next government certainly will not be as stable as the current one, and it is not certain that we will not see a second election in 2016.

Eoin O’Malley is senior lecturer in the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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