Political poster in favor of the same-sex marriage bill, 2015. Wikicommones/ William Murphy. Some rights reserved. Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s announcement of the decision to hold the 2016 General Election in the last week of February may have caught some political parties off guard.
The Fine Gael leadership clearly sees an opportunity to exploit the lack of organisation among the other parties. Political analysts are predicting that Fine Gael will receive the largest share of the vote and Kenny will return as Taoiseach for another term. The question, however, of the Labour party’s fate as coalition partner remains uncertain and is the most intriguing issue of this election. With only three weeks to canvass, the party has a lot of work ahead to win over disenchanted supporters, who have seen the leadership yield to Fine Gael’s austerity measures.
A Labour return to government as coalition partner will not inspire any resounding change in Irish politics. Long before the Celtic Tiger, general elections in Ireland have had the same recurring theme — two major centre right political parties vying for power despite their shared commitment to neoliberal policies.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will continue to represent the interests of the business class who demand tax breaks veiled as investment incentives for our recovering economy while relying on multinationals to provide employment for Irish graduates. The Labour Party in government will fall in line with these conservative policies, as they have neither the political backbone nor resources to challenge the majority party.
Though strikingly similar, a core difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is the latter’s disposition to using state institutions to facilitate systemic corruption. Both parties have presided over a state where corporate cronyism has thrived and foreign multinationals flock to in search of a more legitimate tax haven.
Nevertheless, the government has received substantial praise for its management of the economic recovery since coming to power in 2011. Economic growth increased by 7% in 2015. Unemployment is currently 8.6%, placing Ireland below the EU average of 10.4% and emigration has decreased by 13% in the last year. The European Commission has eased Ireland’s fiscal space by 1.5 billion euros, allowing the next government to increase the deficit by 0.5% of GDP.
The passing of the marriage referendum inspired hope that Ireland was entering a new era of tolerance and social justice reform. While this was undoubtedly a positive step, Ireland’s overwhelmingly young population remains largely apathetic. Despite increased employment opportunities, Ireland still has the world’s largest share of its population living abroad and these emigrants are primarily people aged below thirty.
Those that have remained, meanwhile, see an economy that continues to be stacked in favour of older generations, while rising rents and widening wealth gaps are major concerns. Homelessness among the poor and young families are at crisis point. The inevitability of another Fine Gael/Labour coalition can only be more disheartening for the generation that so proudly wrenched their country from the vestiges of the Catholic Church doctrine last May. The continuing illegality of abortion emphasises the lack of moral courage among the country’s leading politicians that misrepresents the support for a referendum among young voters.
In spite of advances on paper, therefore, social justice remains a low priority for the government and its supporters, particularly rural and urban middle-class voters. Fine Gael will undoubtedly point to rising growth and incomes over the next three weeks to secure the middle-class vote.
Sinn Fein can expect to perform very well among the working class, as the party’s credible left-wing policies have become the only attractive alternative for low-income voters and will likely increase their current tally of fourteen seats. Gerry Adams’ leadership, however, as well as his party’s connection to the IRA and an anti-EU platform continues to startle the average Irish voter, ensuring Fianna Fail and Fine Gael strongholds will not be seriously threatened.
Labour’s ineffectiveness and Sinn Fein’s extremism have neutralized any potential for a left-wing government in Ireland in the near future. Hopes for change are also betrayed by the Irish voter’s inherent impulse to continue to opt for the centre-right establishment of Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.
Decades of conservatism based on Catholic doctrine were replaced by a blind faith in neoliberalism during the boom years, even in the wake of the global financial crisis and Ireland’s humiliating IMF bailout in 2008. As Ireland’s delicate recovery shuffles on, therefore, many Irish voters will support the government for lack of a credible alternative.
The only hope for the left in Ireland is that the election results somehow force Fine Gael and Fianna Fail into a coalition which would represent the historical readjustment on left/right divisions long desired by some left-wing activists. However, the question would then arise whether Labour could find its true progressive identity.
Yet the victory of one of the Old Guard, with an ineffective junior partner to secure the majority, is all but assured.