Monday, 31 January 2011

A new dawn for Irish politics?

With an Irish general election likely before the end of the month, how likely is it that this will be a mould-breaking election? Certainly the position of Fianna Fail had seemed precarious until the clever former foreign minister Michael Martin manouevered Brian Cowen out of his party's leadership and moved himself into the top job.

Martin is now displaying the ruthlessness expected of the party of DeValera, Lemass and Haughey, and is busy sidelining TDs and running a very tight seats strategy to make the most of the party's dismal poll showing in the Irish PR system. He has also been making smart noises about backing a Fine Gael government to keep Labour out, noises unwelcome to Fine Gael's hapless leader Enda Kenny who wants to lead a coalition with Labour. With a 16% Fianna Fail poll showing yesterday, there is every chance of that rising to 24% by polling day as Fianna Failers furious with Cowen's ineptitude return to the fold.

That said, Fianna Fail will do well to hold a third, let alone half, their seats in the current circumstances. And the likelihood is that there will be a Fine Gael-Labour government with Kenny as Taoiseach (though Labour's Eamon Gilmore is far more popular). The issue will be the respective showings of the opposition parties - and the Greens - in the final votes and seats tallies. The Greens seem likely to lose most of their seats, and Labour should at least double its seats. The extent to which they succeed, especially in Dublin where Labour should be the largest party, depends on the success of Sinn Fein, with Gerry Adams seeing to enter the Dail, and the ragbag of Trots, leftists and local independents who can expect to pick up a share of the disillusionment vote. Labour has beaten Fine Gael in some polls, but seems unlikely to do so in the vote that matters unless Kenny screws up big time - an achievement of which he is more than capable.

But will this really be a mould-breaker? While a welcome breakthrough for Labour would undoubtedly alter its position in Irish politics, not least if it overtakes Fianna Fail, any government will be severely constrained by the European austerity measures agreed by Cowen, even though Labour is proposing to backload the cuts. Sinn Fein could gain some extra seats, and may even deprive Labour of some expected gains, but is unlikely to be more than a louder voice in the next Dail. And Martin seems set to turn Fianna Fail into a credible opposition, erasing the memory of Cowen's ineptitude.

That will make it even harder for Labour is to retain its strength in Government, a feat it has not achieved in previous coalitions. After all, Labour had 33 seats in 1992 which it halved in 1997, though that owed much to an unexpected deal with Fianna Fail for three of those years. Without the demise of Fianna Fail, that mould will be a lot harder to break - even though the results seem certain to represent a historic high for the Irish left.

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