Meath East result will test Coalition partners’ relationship

‘Small party takes blame’ effect is more obvious than ever


The Financial Times reported recently that, at the last EU summit, outgoing Italian prime minister Mario Monti presented a four-page personal memo to his colleagues, including Enda Kenny.

Monti became caretaker prime minister of Italy a year ago and achieved much praise internationally for saving the euro zone’s third-biggest economy from the brink. He then unwisely decided to contest last month’s general election in which his centrist alliance achieved just 10 per cent of the vote.

In his memo, Monti set out his thesis on the euro zone crisis and, while accepting the need for economic reforms along the lines he implemented in Italy, he warned that austerity policies were taking too long to bear fruit. There was, he said “a significant time-lag between the structural reforms and the results in terms of increased economic activity and job creation”, and he warned that public support for the reforms and for the European Union itself was dramatically declining as a result.

Political reality
Even if one leaves aside for a moment the debate about whether the economic reforms are the right policy, the political reality to which Monti was alluding was that in Italy and elsewhere the electorate has no sense that these policies are improving their own economic circumstances and therefore are likely to punish those implementing them. In Italy’s election, more that 50 per cent of the electorate voted for parties flatly opposed to the policies implemented by Monti’s short-lived government.

It seems Monti put this time-lag between economic reform and appreciable improvement in the lives of ordinary citizens at about four years, a period which tallies with the average election cycle in Ireland as in most of Europe.

One suspects that Enda Kenny, who presides over a government implementing similar severe reforms in an economy with sluggish growth, will have been reading and listening to Monti’s analysis with particular interest. It is worth his while to reflect on it again in the aftermath of the Meath East byelection.

The fact Fine Gael as the largest party in a government retained a Dáil seat in a mid-term byelection is a significant achievement. It is quite remarkable that Fine Gael’s vote in Meath East last Wednesday at 38.5 per cent was only 2.5 percentage points less than February 2011.

Fine Gael Ministers have been busy in the last 48 hours seeking to portray the byelection win as showing national support for their policies in government, but that clearly overstates the situation. Meath was a very good constituency for Fine Gael in 2011, and sympathy for the party and, in particular, its candidate arising from the fact and circumstances of Shane McEntee’s death was the determining factor in this campaign.

Helen McEntee was a capable candidate in her own right. Had she not been, the party might have faced a backlash for cynically seeking to electorally exploit that sympathy but instead it worked to its advantage. We will have to wait until next year’s local and European elections however before we know whether Fine Gael is bucking the European trend and holding its own despite harsh policies and low growth.

Enda Kenny may also draw some comfort from the fact that, as the Meath East result confirms, the Irish phenomenon whereby the smaller coalition party carries the brunt of public anger at government measures is repeating itself. The Progressive Democrats were fatally undermined by this. The Green Party sustained a near-fatal wound from its only experience in government from 2007 to 2011. The Labour Party has previously suffered from the same problem in coalition, most notably in 1997 when its vote almost halved after two years in government with Fianna Fáil and three years with Fine Gael.

If anything it seems the “small-party-takes-the-blame” effect is operating more strongly on this government than previously, probably because the policies being implemented have had to be tougher and because Labour in particular over-promised during the final stages of the 2011 election campaign.

In 2011, Labour candidate in Meath East Dominic Hannigan topped the poll with 21 per cent of the vote and took the first seat. Twenty-five months later, Labour’s candidate Eoin Holmes polled less than a quarter of that 2011 figure. Some of that collapse is attributable to the dynamic of byelections generally and to specific factors relating to this one. The scale of the collapse, however, cannot be so easily explained. It suggests, as do some of the national opinion polls in the last few months, that the Labour vote has shrunk even lower than its traditional level.

The worrying thing for Eamon Gilmore now is that this byelection result and these bad opinion polls will give rise to a further bout of tensions within his parliamentary party, echoing those which erupted when Róisín Shortall and Colm Keaveney left and perhaps extending to backbenchers previously supportive of his leadership.

Personal bond
The worry for Enda Kenny is that if this result undermines Labour’s confidence, it could undermine the Government relationship generally. There is a real risk from now on that every debate on policy will be seen in terms of which party wins. Managing the Labour vulnerability will test the personal political bond which we are told exists between Kenny and Gilmore.

For the sake of his party and the Government, Gilmore should give up his position as Minister for Foreign Affairs once the EU presidency ends in June and switch to a domestic economic department. The leader needs to be more hands-on in the management of the Labour Party, more vocal at communicating its achievements in government and more effective at managing the Coalition relationship.

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