Conservative Party’s victory – what it means for Ireland

Stephen Collins: ‘The lesson for Enda Kenny and Joan Burton is that poor poll results may mean nothing when people are faced with choosing a government’

‘Fine Gael will aspire to a similar share of the national vote as the Conservatives but will get nothing like the seat bonus provided by the straight vote system.’ Above,  people in London take copies of a free newspaper showing the Conservative Party’s election victory. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

‘Fine Gael will aspire to a similar share of the national vote as the Conservatives but will get nothing like the seat bonus provided by the straight vote system.’ Above, people in London take copies of a free newspaper showing the Conservative Party’s election victory. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

 

David Cameron’s stunning election victory has a number of implications for Ireland and one of them is that the Coalition has every chance winning a second term if the two parties in power hold their nerve and fight a coherent campaign.

Fine Gael TDs in particular were buoyed up by the result in the UK on the basis that it showed that voters are prepared to reward a party in power that has taken some very unpopular decisions in the national interest.

The reaction of Labour TDs in Leinster House was more nuanced. They were all naturally disappointed at the dismal failure of their sister party across the water to do better, but some were also quietly heartened by the lesson that governments can retain power in a time of “austerity”.

The twin planks of the Conservative victory were the promise of stability based on the party’s record in government and the attack on the Scottish nationalists as an insidious force who wanted to hold the rest of the UK to ransom.

“There is an obvious parallel here,” said one excited Fine Gael TD. “We are the only party that can offer the voters stability and Sinn Féin represents the same kind of bogeyman for middle Ireland as the Scots nats do for middle England.”

Of course there are some very important differences between Ireland and the UK and there are no guarantees that the electorate here will view the world in the same terms as British voters.

The difference in the electoral systems is also very important. Fine Gael will aspire to a similar share of the national vote as the Conservatives but will get nothing like the seat bonus provided by the straight vote system.

The converse, though, is that while the Labour Party here is in a position very akin to the Liberal Democrats, proportional representation should ensure that the loss of seats will be on nothing like the same scale.

Another feature of the British outcome that has given both Coalition parties here a shot in the arm is that nobody saw it coming. The polls, the pundits and the politicians all forecast a hung parliament but in the event it was nothing like that.

The lesson for Enda Kenny and Joan Burton is that poor poll results over the past two years may mean nothing when people are faced with the responsibility of choosing a government.

The Conservatives won because the British electorate did not see a viable alternative government on offer. The Irish electorate will be confronted with the same dilemma and if Fine Gael and Labour play their cards right they could win the extra votes needed to get them over the line.

There are no obvious UK parallels with the position Fianna Fáil finds itself in. Making itself relevant to the formation of government is the big challenge facing the main Opposition party given that it has ruled out coalition with either Fine Gael or Sinn Féin.

As for Sinn Féin, the party’s prospects lie somewhere between those of the SNP and UKIP, both of which place nationalism at the heart of their appeal. The straight vote system means that the SNP got far more seats than its vote warranted while UKIP got far fewer. Sinn Féin will certainly improve its position here – the only question is by how much.

The setback for Sinn Féin in Fermanagh South Tyrone and the slight drop in its support on other constituencies was welcome news for the Government parties in Dublin and for Fianna Fáil.

It demonstrated that the rise of Sinn Féin is not as inexorable as is so widely assumed while the performance of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists showed there is still room for moderate parties on both the nationalist and unionist sides of the sectarian debate.

In terms of its most immediate direct impact on this country, Cameron’s victory means that a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union is now certain to happen in the next couple of years.

The potential damage that a UK exit would have on Ireland has caused considerable unease in this country across the political spectrum as well as among business and trade union leaders.

However, the scale of Mr Cameron’s victory is something of a silver lining from an Irish point of view as it puts him in a strong position to lead the EU referendum debate and fight the campaign on ground of his choosing.

If it had been a hung parliament, as almost all of the polls and pundits were suggesting, Cameron might have retained power but would have been dependent on his own anti-EU right wing or even UKIP.

That would have made it very difficult for him to get an EU reform package strong enough to placate the variety of anti-European forces in the UK and the referendum campaign could have turned into an unwinnable proposition.

“David Cameron wants the UK to remain in the EU. This election victory puts him in a strong position to get a good deal from his EU partners and to convince the British public to stay, so it’s not a bad result at all,” said one senior Government politician.

The Brussels think-tank Open Europe came up with a similar analysis in advance of the British election. In a detailed report last week it argued that in the long term a Labour victory would have made a British exit from the EU more rather than less likely.

That said, real concerns remain in Ireland about the outcome the referendum on EU membership. The Government here will have to do everything in its power to ensure that the British get the kind of deal that will enable Cameron to sell it to the British public.

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