Unlike the United States, Ireland doesn’t have nuclear weapons. Nor (unlike elsewhere in Europe) was there ever any threat that someone as colorful as Donald Trump would become Taoiseach (prime minister). But seen as the latest in a series in the austerity-hit euro-zone periphery, the election’s result should worry anybody in Brussels, Frankfurt or Berlin who is concerned about the euro zone’s long-term political sustainability.
Irish politics are especially unusual
Every country is unique in its own way, of course, but Irish politics have always been especially unusual by the standards of Western democracies.
The party system has traditionally been defined not by a contest between left and right but between the winners and losers of the brief but bitter civil war that ended in 1923, immediately after independence from Britain. Fianna Fáil (“the soldiers of destiny”) lost that conflict. Nevertheless, the party went on to dominate Irish politics, remaining the largest party for nearly 80 years, until 2011. That’s when it suffered defeat at the hands of Fine Gael (“tribe of the Gaels”), its historic rival, and the successor to the winners of the 1923 civil war.
So what’s the difference between them? Fianna Fáil is traditionally the more nationalistic. Otherwise, ideological differences have been small and inconsistent, with each party sometimes slightly to the left and sometimes slightly to the right of its rival, but essentially rooted close to the center. Political scientists would call them “catch-all parties.”
While Fine Gael has always had a more affluent electorate (and even has roots in the closest thing Ireland had to a fascist movement), it has also always had to rely on the support of the center-left Labour Party (the “half-party” in what was once known as a “two-and-a-half party system”) to reach a governing majority.
The Irish economy is in recovery mode
Thus it was a Fine Gael-Labour coalition that swept into power in 2011. Fianna Fáil was punished for presiding over the devastating recession Ireland had suffered since 2008. Fianna Fáil lost more than half its electorate and was overtaken (for the first time) not only by Fine Gael but also by Labour.
On the surface, that coalition had grounds to be optimistic about its 2016 electoral prospects. In 2013, the country exited the humiliating “troika” (International Monetary Fund, European Commission and European Central Bank) bailout it had been forced into in 2010 when the international markets refused to fund Ireland’s ballooning fiscal deficit. Austerity budgeting came to an end just in time for the election. GDP growth (admittedly not the most reliable metric in Ireland) has returned to levels reminiscent of the “Celtic Tiger” boom years. And unemployment is down to below 9 percent, a drop from more than 15 in 2012.
We can question whether Ireland’s faithful implementation of the euro-zone authorities’ austerity formula caused its economic resurrection. Nevertheless, Ireland served as the perfect poster child to contrast with more troublesome troika clients such as Greece. This election was therefore virtually a “best-case scenario” for testing the political sustainability of economic adjustment within the euro zone. One could argue that virtue — or at least staying the painful course of “fiscal correction” — was rewarded in the end.
But Irish voters weren’t happy
The only problem is the Irish electorate didn’t seem to buy this narrative.
Instead, the ruling coalition suffered a defeat almost as resounding as that dealt to Fianna Fáil in 2011. Fine Gael/Labour were left with roughly a third of the seats, down from more than two-thirds in 2011. With 32 percent of the seats (down from 46 percent in 2011), Fine Gael just about maintained its position as the largest party, ahead of a resurgent Fianna Fáil (with 28 percent, up from only 12). Labour took the brunt of the voters’ disenchantment, winning only 4 percent of seats – its worst showing in its history, just five years after its best (when it won 22 percent).
Labour thus ceded its traditional position as the largest party of the Irish left to Gerry Adams’s Sinn Féin. That party now holds 14 percent of the seats in a parliament it boycotted until the 1980s, when it was not much more than the public relations office of the Provisional IRA. The remaining fifth of the seats are scattered among two small center-left parties, an alliance of hard-left socialists and an array of non-party independent candidates — some firmly on the ideological left, others locally oriented road-fixers exemplified most purely by Kerry’s Healy-Rae clan.
What did the voters want?
While multiple indicators suggest that the public is optimistic about the economy, the scars — economic, societal and political — of the post-2008 years of recession and austerity are far from healed. The far left has ridden an extraordinary protest campaign against the introduction of water charges – often seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of austerity measures. Highly visible crises in housing (with starkly increased homelessness) and the public health system (with long waiting times for treatment) have also fueled anger at the government.
Some therefore saw in the muddled constellation of the new Dáil an emerging social democratic majority. After all, Fine Gael was the only major party to make tax cuts a central part of their campaign message. And Ireland stands out in Europe for the total absence of any far-right populists along the lines of France’s Front National. Even Fianna Fáil, though not a left-wing party, clearly positioned itself to Fine Gael’s left for this election by emphasizing the importance of investing in public services more than tax cuts.
But this interpretation may be wishful thinking.
The Irish left has always seen the two “civil war parties” as representing the forces of conservatism — albeit by U.S. standards a rather non-doctrinaire, “small-c” conservatism. This view has rarely been better expressed than by writer Seán Ó’Faoláin (quoted by historian Diarmuid Ferriter) in 1945:
Our two main parties are indistinguishable not because their political ideas are alike but because neither has any political idea at all – warriors of destiny and the race of the Gaels – silly romantic titles that confess a complete intellectual vacancy as far as the reality of political ideas are concerned.
This was the first election in which those two parties won less than 50 percent of the vote between them (though only barely). But they still came away with slightly more of the seats than in 2011, with almost 60 percent. (Ireland’s unusual electoral system is only roughly proportional).
Moreover, the overall left bloc, from Labour to the far left, although more radical than before, is smaller (with 31 percent of the seats, vs. 39 percent in 2011) and much more fragmented.
Perhaps this election shows us the beginning of the end of the “civil war politics” dominated by the two conservative rivals, but for now, that seems a long way off. In the meantime, Fine Gael — still led by outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny — will form a minority government on its own, dependent on the tolerance of Fianna Fáil, which will again lead the opposition.
How the election’s losers ended up in power
Voters in their current mood often scorn politicians as power-thirsty opportunists, but the weeks after the election actually resembled a contest to see who could avoid entering government without being blamed for the resulting power vacuum. Even more ironically, an election whose only clear message was a rejection of a Fine Gael-led coalition looks set to result in the first-ever single-party Fine Gael administration (albeit supplemented by a sprinkling of non-party Independents).
How did that happen?
In the aftermath of the election, many on the left (and in the media) helpfully called on Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to put aside “civil war politics” and give the country the only stable majority government that seemed possible — a “grand coalition” of the big two. Such a coalition — or preferably outright merger — has long been the dream of the Irish left, since this would pave the way for a more conventional party system divided along left-right lines.
But Fianna Fáil didn’t dominate Irish politics for so long by accident. It was perfectly capable of working out the electoral implications of handing Sinn Féin et al. the leadership of the opposition in a time of deep “anti-politics” sentiment. So Fianna Fáil is perfectly willing to let Fine Gael take office by abstaining in the vote for Taoiseach, but entirely unwilling to actually form a coalition government with its rival.
Fianna Fáil hopes in this way to hold some sway over the government while still benefiting from anti-incumbent sentiment. Some political science research suggests parties can indeed have it both ways like this. The two parties have agreed on a “confidence and supply” arrangement for three years, but few will be surprised if this unravels more quickly. Scenting Fine Gael blood, Fianna Fáil seems confident the next election will see the natural order restored, with it again the largest party in Irish politics. Fianna Fáil will lie in wait for an opportune time to pull the plug and force a new election. Few think this will take more than a year or two.
That scenario — the government alternating between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil — doesn’t look much like a new dawn in Irish politics.
So why is all this a problem for the euro zone?
While there is no sign of an emerging left-of-center governing majority, neither does the old party system seem capable of providing stable government. Fianna Fáil is buoyed by its comeback after the near-death experience of 2011 – but this was still the second-worst election result in its history. Fine Gael is back in government, but only at the indulgence of its old rival – which probably won’t last long.
As in Spain, which is going back to the polls after nearly five months of failure to form a government following December’s election, the economic crisis — and the euro zone’s response — has fatally undermined the old party system. No viable alternative has yet emerged to replace it. Spain’s two main parties have fresher civil war wounds and more ideological distance to divide them than do Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. And Ireland’s economy recovery has been far stronger than Spain’s. This made it easier to arrange the tacit alliance that underlies the new minority government.
Yet even here it seems like the costs of economic adjustment in the euro zone have been so large that putting the pieces of the political system back together again will take even longer than mending the economy.
If even the Irish “model student” has entered into a period of “ungovernability,” this cannot bode well for the euro zone’s longterm ability to withstand economic setbacks.
James Conran is a PhD candidate in the department of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.