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Ireland’s new shade of green

Eóin Murray
2 July 2007

"How surprising the familiar always is", remarks Irish novelist John Banville in The Book of Evidence. On 24 May 2007 the most exciting election seen in a generation in the Republic of Ireland pitted the incumbent coalition of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats against the "Alliance for Change" of Fine Gael and the Labour Party. In the face of punditry and polling data which indicated that change was in the air, taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern managed an astonishing political performance and led Fianna Fáil to office for a rare third successive term.

But if the populist Ahern's re-election entrenches in power a figure familiar to the Irish electorate, it is what happened after the vote - the decision of Fianna Fáil and the Green party to enter into coalition, after the Greens won six seats in the new Dàil (parliament) - that surprised most observers. The surprise was partly owed to a clear signal by Green chairman Trevor Sargent during the campaign that such an outcome was out of the question (followed after the election by Sargent's resignation from his post); but partly too for the way that it represents another departure from the historic pattern of Irish politics.

Since Ireland gained effective independence from Britain in 1921-22 with the foundation of the Free State, the country's political spectrum has been defined by the divisions and passions of that period rather than any traditional left/right division. In Ireland it is the "national question" rooted in civil-war politics - and (especially where the pan-Ireland nationalist party Sinn Fèin is concerned) the thirty-year "troubles" in Northern Ireland, which demarcates the major political parties. Instead of a red/blue divide, Ireland's political parties have long defined themselves in various shades of the colour of Irish nationalism: green.

Thus, the main political rivalry in Ireland is between two centre-right parties - Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael - whose polarisation echoes the issues and positions dominant in the era of Ireland's civil war of 1922-23 and after. The strength of each party rests in its ability to serve as a "catch-all" coalition which can accommodate and service a variety of interests.

A varying cluster of other parties have always gathered to the left and right of "FF" and "FG", able on occasion to join a governing coalition but never to achieve the electoral strength to become the senior partner. On the left is the centrist and ageing Labour Party; on the right the small neo-liberal Progressive Democrats (PD). Labour, whose foundation in 1912 underpins its claim to historical legitimacy, has been in coalition with Fine Gael on six occasions (and once with Fianna Fáil); the PDs have (since their foundation in 1985) been in coalition with Fianna Fáil on four occasions, giving the party an influence disproportionate to its size.

Also on Irish politics, south and north, in openDemocracy:

Fred Halliday, "Thinking straight about Ireland" (27 May 2005)

Paul Arthur, "The end of the IRA's 'long war'" (29 July 2005)

Stephen Howe, "Mad Dogs and Ulstermen: the crisis of Loyalism", parts one (28 September 2005) and two (30 September 2005)

Richard English, "Sinn Féin's hundredth birthday" (27 November 2005)

John Horgan, "Northern Ireland: a view from the south" (7 March 2007The giants' recovery

The election to the 2007 Dáil was hotly anticipated - over the previous year and a half voters had endured Ireland's own emerging version of the "eternal campaign" of a kind more familiar in the United States. The development of American-style politics was reinforced by the trend towards presidential-type campaigning in which the performance of the party leader becomes the standard by which success is measured. This tendency was to impact on the fortunes of the smaller parties, as voters consolidated their positions by choosing a taoiseach rather then simply a local representative.

The key issue in the election was the performance of the economy, which for a decade has experienced accelerating growth and rising living standards, contributing to the image of a roaring "Celtic tiger". The opposition parties tried to focus on the social downsides of this runaway success, and to draw attention to quality-of-life issues such as health, education, crime and transport.

With the significant exception of the Greens, it didn't work. The clearest evidence of this lay in the parallel collapse of the Progressive Democrats and setback to Sinn Féin (SF). The PDs, led by the controversial minister for justice Michael McDowell, pursued a red-scare-type campaign under the slogan "Don't Throw it All Away"; its bitter result was a loss by the party of six of its eight TDs (members of the Dàil), including that of McDowell himself and his deputy Liz O'Donnell.

For Sinn Féin and its veteran leader Gerry Adams, this election should have been the moment of their entry to the political mainstream in Ireland. The party's long experience of survival and mutation in Northern Ireland, including its ability to gather into its fold a younger generation of vigorous activists, seemed likely to guarantee it an increased vote-share, if not to a position of power-broker as a new government was formed. The received pre-election wisdom was that the May poll presented SF with the opportunity to replicate its Northern Ireland success in the republic.

However, during one of the normally docile TV debates Michael McDowell - a vehement opponent of Sinn Féin - used his finely tuned skills as a barrister to target Gerry Adams and his party. In particular, McDowell referred to the so-called "Colombia three" case and associated SF with "providing IRA military know-how to Colombian narco-terrorists [Farc]". The effectiveness of the assault combined with Adams's failure to grapple with key issues facing southern voters to persuade uncomfortable middle-class voters to turn away from the slightly too radical Sinn Féin. Thus, McDowell and the PD's dismay at their own defeat was not absolute: their two remaining TDs are enough to sustain a foothold in the coalition government, while SF managed only to increase its share of the vote by 0.4% and lost a seat into the bargain.

The greening of Ireland

The main beneficiaries of the retreat of these smaller parties were the two bigger parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Although Fianna Fáil lost three seats the migration of votes towards the political centre stood to them enough to allow them to return to government at the head of a reformed coalition.

A consequence of this worth noting is that Fianna Fáil has reaffirmed its status as one of the most successful political parties in any modern democratic state - comparable in its historic dominance to such parties as Mexico's Partido Revolucionario Institucional (until the election of 2000) and Japan's Liberal Democratic Party. Fianna Fáil has now held office, singly or in partnership, for fifty-three of the past seventy-five years, including fifteen of the past twenty years.

Eóin Murray worked in Gaza as a rapporteur for the human-rights NGO FrontLine. He holds a masters degree in war studies from Kings College, London, and his writing has appeared in the Sunday Times, IslamOnline, and Electronicintifada

Also by Eóin Murray in openDemocracy:

"Night falls in Gaza" (March 2004)

"'Tear down that wall!' The world court and Israel" (July 2004)

"Welcome to Costa-del-Gaza" (July 2005)

"Palestinians' time of choice" (24 January 2006)

"After Hamas: a time for politics" (30 January 2006)

"Alan Johnston: a reporter in Gaza" (23 April 2007)Over time, FF has developed a sophisticated capacity to cultivate a centrist appeal while being able when national events or political crises seem to require it to "play the green (i.e. nationalist) card". It has also benefited from leaders - and Bertie Ahern is but the latest - who have proved to be extremely skilful political operators with an acute ear for when it is necessary to change the emphasis of their rhetoric or policy.

The rapprochement Fianna Fáil and the Greens is a good example. Much has been made in the past five years of Bertie Ahern's conversion to the philosophy of American sociologist Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone. Putnam deems that happiness is increased by minimising the size of an individual's "work-shop-sleep" triangle. Such thinking resonates deeply with Green voters who take a strong interest in quality-of-life issues, public transport and the construction of community living. philosophy of social organisation defined in his essential work

Before the election, Ahern and Fianna Fáil were making subtle overtures to the Green party by becoming increasingly outspoken on environmental issues. Ahern's success in this election can thus be seen in terms of a subtle shift of FF from one shade of political green to another. Just as Fianna Fáil moved from being a high-taxation party in the 1980s to being a low-taxation party in the 1990s, so it has again overcome strong fears in its rural heartland to adapt to the prevailing political mood.

The prospect of the Greens sharing power with Fianna Fáil posed significant challenges for the Green party as well. The Greens had cultivated a careful image as active and adamant critics of Fianna Fáil on the grounds that FF was a party in service to the interests of wealthy property-developers (Ireland's booming economy is property-led) and corporate interests.

The final coalition deal sacrificed many issues close to the heart of the Green party's core philosophy and this may pose problems for their credibility as a leftwing party in future elections.

Richard Boyd Barrett, chairman of the Irish anti-war movement, came very close to edging ahead of a Green candidate under Ireland's single-transferable-vote system. He may be a beneficiary of the failure of the programme for government to end US military usage of Shannon airport. So, too, smaller environmental groups and heritage activists may pose problems because of the perception that the Greens failed to negotiate hard enough to save the ancient Hill of Tara site from despoliation, which has been placed on a list of the "world's 100 most endangered heritage sites" by the World Monuments Fund.

The sense that Ireland is undergoing an exceptional phase of peace and prosperity is reinforced by an Economic and Social Research Institute report published on 28 June 2007 highlighting the many positive economic and social indicators; the taoiseach has cited this to champion his record and scorn the "merchants of doom" critical of the country's direction. At the same time, the election process and result pose some significant questions for citizens and politicians alike about the overall health of Ireland's democracy:

▪ according to a "democracy audit" conducted by think-tank Tasc there exists low levels of political participation, in general, but in particular by women who seem to view politics as a male preserve.

▪ even though Ireland enjoys unrivalled prosperity, it has become a country of extremes with massive gaps between rich and poor. Children's-rights charity Barnardos published pre-election statistics showing one in nine Irish children living in poverty.

▪ the political system is dominated by one party which has cemented its status as the "natural party of government" and solidified Ireland's unaccountable parliamentary system which allows the executive to rule almost without reference to the other arms of state.

The election has set Ireland's political direction in the short term, but these harder questions remain open. The key policy challenges they embody will help shape the colours of Ireland's political scene over the medium term, irrespective of who is in office.

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