Does battering of Coalition indicate a shift in Irish democracy?

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

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.

Fine Gael was more nuanced in Opposition, supporting the bank guarantee and the overall thrust of the policies designed to cope with the crisis while attacking specific policies in strong terms. Most of its voters knew or should have known what needed to be done.

For the first three years of this Coalition opinion polls indicated that the Fine Gael vote was holding up reasonably well so the scale of the setback it suffered at the weekend came as a severe jolt. Proportionally the party did not suffer as badly as Labour but the unexpected nature of the slump made it almost as shocking.

Fine Gael is clearly suffered from the inept performance of the Coalition since the troika departed at the end of 2013, with a succession of blunders and misjudgments over the past five months tarnishing a hard-won image of competence. However, the malaise goes deeper than that. Public impatience with the grind of “austerity” clearly played a part in the Coalition’s travails. The medicine has begun to work, with employment rising, debt coming down and living standards improving; but it has not had the impact those in power expected.

The immediate response of the Coalition parties, particularly Labour, to the electoral meltdown has been to suggest that a change of direction allied to better communication is required to get the Government’s message across to the public.

A sweeping reshuffle is probably on the cards rather than the minimal one that had been expected. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore will almost certainly leave Foreign Affairs and move to a department like Jobs and room will be found at the Cabinet table for at least one new Labour Party Minister. While some people in Labour have suggested that changing the party leader is necessary for survival, this appears to be very much a minority view and in truth it is hard to see how it would change the outlook for the party.

On the Fine Gael side there is now a clamour for a change at the Department of Health, with TDs believing that Dr James Reilly simply has to move. Leo Varadkar is the favourite to take the health post given his brilliant communication skills. The problem for the Coalition is that new faces in key positions and a more coherent approach to decision-making and communication will not alter the underlying reality that budgetary targets have to be met as part of our EU obligations.

Even if there were no EU obligations, any government would have to maintain budgetary discipline in order to retain its capacity to borrow on the international money markets. The great lesson of Irish political history is that populist politics has created a cycle of boom and bust that has plunged the country into recession that has had to be cured by austerity policies in decade after decade. The fiscal disciplines of the EU Fiscal Treaty means that populist politicians cannot wreck the economy for short-term political advantage any more, but whether the penny has really dropped with the electorate is a moot point.

In the longer run Sinn Féin could face the very same problems as Labour. It has managed to make substantial inroads into the working class vote by suggesting austerity can suddenly be made to vanish with a change of government. If and when it achieves power that mirage will vanish just as it has for Labour. In the short term, though, Sinn Féin has made serious inroads on the basis of its total opposition to Government policies. It now has a base from which it will mount a significant campaign to win a seat in every one of the 40 Dáil constituencies at the next election. Mind you, while the party’s local elections vote amounted to an impressive 15 per cent, it was still a good deal short of the 20 per cent or so it has been getting in most of the opinion polls for the past year and more. That could make all the difference when it comes to a general election. One of the things that could influence than election when it comes is the way the party operates in local government.

Sinn Féin will be the biggest grouping on Dublin City Council and that will put it in a position to decide who runs the council. An alliance between Sinn Féin, the hard left parties which have made significant gains and Independents could control the 60-member body. At the very least they could make it impossible for anybody else to run the council. Agreeing a budget and implementing it will be a new kind of challenge for Sinn Féin and it will be interesting to see how the party takes it on.

A period of turmoil in Dublin city and some other urban councils where the traditional parties have lost out could be very interesting. A feature of the election results, which tallies with the most recent Irish Times Ipsos MRBI opinion poll, is the increasing class polarisation of politics, particularly in Dublin. There was a massive swing to Sinn Féin in the working class areas of Dublin where the party was getting more than 40 per cent of the vote in some of the ballot boxes. By contrast the Fine Gael vote held up reasonably well in middle-class areas of the city and particularly in the southside suburbs where it retained its status as the biggest party. Fianna Fáil made a comeback in some of these areas. This class divide has been evident in referendums on the EU and in more recent elections and its full impact will now be felt in local government.

For Fianna Fáil, the local elections marked a recovery that was hardly expected even in the party itself. Getting its nose ahead of Fine Gael in terms of the popular vote will provide a huge morale boost to the party. In recent times there were mutterings within the party about Micheál Martin’s leadership, but that is likely to dissipate in the light of the election result. He has been lucky in that mistakes such as the handling of the Mary Hanafin return have turned into pluses, with both Fianna Fáil candidates getting elected in the Blackrock ward of Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown Council.

The party can now look forward to challenging for at least one seat in every one of the 40 Dáil constituencies at the next election. Given that it has just 20 seats at the moment, if it were to double its number of TDs that would be a great result. One vitally important outcome is that it now has impressive young councillors in Dublin such as Frank Kennedy in Dublin Bay South and Kate Feeney in Dún Laoghaire who will be bidding for Dáil nominations alongside former TDs such as Mary Hanafin and Seán Haughey. The election was also vital for the Greens, who made a comeback from the dead. The election of Eamon Ryan as an MEP for Dublin, coming on top of a number of council seats in Dublin, would put the seal on the recovery.

Stephen Collins is Political Editor