Does battering of Coalition indicate a shift in Irish democracy?

Opinion: Swing to Sinn Féin and Independents could signal future instability

Mon, May 26, 2014, 01:00

The drubbing suffered by both Coalition parties in the local elections raises questions about the Government’s ability to survive until the end of its term, but the more important question is whether it also marks a fundamental shift in Irish democracy.

The 2011 general election marked the end of Fianna Fáil dominance, which had lasted almost 80 years. If the local election results are the harbinger of things to come, they could mark the end of party politics as we know it. More than 40 per cent of the votes in the local elections went to Independents, smaller parties and Sinn Féin, while in Dublin that trend was even stronger with over half the vote drifting away from the three parties that have dominated politics since the foundation of the State.

Of course it would be a mistake to overestimate the significance of local elections which allow voters the luxury of expressing their frustration with the Government at mid-term without having to worry too much about the consequences. Still, the scale of the slump in the vote of both Coalition parties, the substantial breakthrough by Sinn Féin right across the country and the sheer scale of the swing to Independents of all hues could presage political instability on quite a scale in the years ahead.

One big development that was almost obscured by the publicity surrounding the Sinn Féin gains was the significant recovery of Fianna Fáil since the general election. The party even edged ahead of Fine Gael in the overall share of the vote in the local elections. That performance demonstrates the resilience of long established parties in the face of adversity and ironically that may be a message of hope for Labour and Fine Gael.

Labour has survived crushing defeats while in coalition at regular intervals during its history and has come back to fight another day. The difficulty it faces this time is that Sinn Féin is a disciplined, highly organised organisation which will be there to compete with Labour whenever the present Coalition comes to an end. There is also a strong presence of hard left groupings on the four Dublin councils who between them polled as many votes as Labour in the capital.

The collapse in the Labour vote was widely expected after a string of poor opinion poll results, but the slump in the Fine Gael vote caught many people by surprise. The party leadership was not expecting a setback on anything like this scale and has as much thinking to do about the implications as the Labour leadership.

At one level the fate suffered by the Coalition, particularly the Labour part of it, was a case of reaping what they had sown. From the onset of the economic crisis in 2008 Labour whipped up strong public support from the vehemence of its attacks on the Fianna Fáil-Green Party government. Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton gave no quarter in their attack on former taoiseach Brian Cowen and his Ministers who were trying to wrestle with the appalling consequences of the crisis. Gilmore became the most popular party leader and Labour passed out Fine Gael for a period in the opinion polls on the strength of the party’s no-holds-barred performance in Opposition.

The result was that many people who voted Labour naively expected that cutbacks and tax increases would be reversed and bank bondholders burned when the party achieved power. Such outcomes were never remotely feasible but the party has suffered from its failure to deliver them. It was not so much the specific election promises that Labour made in the heat of the campaign as the overarching impression it created that austerity could somehow be rolled back.

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