Thursday 24 February 2011

A few thoughts on the Irish Election 2011

Tomorrow is the big day, where the next Dáil will be elected in Ireland. I had hoped to write more about the actual campaign, but sadly real life got in the way. So instead, here's the election boiled down to one badly-written post:

Trends and Strategy

Fine Gael, the centre-right party, looks set to win almost 40% of the vote, which could get them a single-party majority in the Dáil - something which hasn't happened in Ireland for decades. They'd a good campaign, deciding to hide their leader, famous for his poor media performance, while presenting a good team to fight the election battle on the airwaves. There were 4 leadership debates (and Enda Kenny only took part in three of them, which caused a bit of a fuss), where Enda simply had to not say anything incredibly daft and Fine Gael wouldn't be harmed.

Labour had a terrible campaign. The popularity of their leader, Eamon Gilmore, tempted them to run a presidential campaign with the slogan "Gilmore for Taoiseach" (Labour have never led a government in Ireland before). Given that Labour is the third party of Irish politics, it would have been hard to conduct a cabinet election since they had a more limited gene pool to draw on from their last Dáil cohort, which might explain the lack of a Plan B when the presidential campaign failed. Their finance spokesperson, Joan Burton, was disappointing on TV - the now famous outburst on Tonight with Vincent Browne damaged her image, and the strategy of selling a vision meant that in debates with her competitors she rarely got around to the detail (time limits and impatient presenters made sure of that): not a good position in a generally policy-dominated election. The "vision" point goes for all Labour performances: the party seemed more concerned about its brand than the policy. This changed after the first week and a half, with Gilmore doing well in the debates and trying to insert more substance, and Labour's poll ratings consolidated, but I wonder how much it will add anything to Labour's vote.

It should be said that Labour haven't had a good campaign in the light of their ambitions, but they will increase their vote and their seats. With a different strategy they could have done better yet.

Fianna Fáil probably had as good an election as they could have. In the last leadership debate, Micheál Martin was on the attack, and probably turned people off by talking over the other leaders, but it made clear that FF needs to consolidate its core vote. It seems to be around the 14-16% mark, which means that it's disasterous, but there was little that could be done about that after its record in government.

Sinn Féin and the ULA seemed to have done well for themselves with their messages of withdrawing from the IMF-EU bailout and insistuting a socialist economy with nationalised banks respectively. They will still be small parties, but it shows a fragmentation of the left, and it probably attracted support away from Labour.

The Greens look like they might be wiped out. I agree with Jason O'Mahony that this would be a pity, since they actually tried to achieve - and did achieve - some of their manifesto promises. that's not to say that they don't deserve punishment, but a wipe-out is a bit disproportionate in my opinion.

There are a record number of independents running this year, and around 17 could get elected (how votes split and transfer may decide this). There are still very localist independent who only care about constituency matters, but there are a new breed of independents who are campaigning on national issues, either from the left or the right. The phrase most often uttered by these independents is: "I will work with like-minded independents", to which my brain can't help muttering "what, you mean like in a party?". One of the tensions in democracy is between having independent-minded representatives, and the need to build broad coalitions to enact change. the party system has many faults, but I'm not convinced that independents will improve things much.

A European election?

Europe was a big issue in this election, but only in the limited sense of discussing what could be won from a renegotiation. There was no proper debate about what would need to be done about the entire Eurozone, though there was a brief mention (I counted 1 time during the campaign!) of Eurobonds being a good thing for Ireland. The level of tax harmonisation or budgetary convergence that might be negotiable in return for this and renegotiation of the bail out deal wasn't discussed, except to restate over and over that the coporation tax would not be for sale. In many ways it's natural that parties don't want to give away their negotiating position beforehand. However, these changes will require a referendum in Ireland, and perhaps in other Member States - we need to start speaking in a language of what is just for everyone in the Eurozone, and not simply "if it's good for us, it's good for everyone, because then we can pay some of the money back". The shape of the Eurozone will stay with us after we recover (however that happens, and however long it takes), so there should have been a more open discussion about this.

The Next Dáil

It's pretty clear from the poll trends that FG will near a majority on its own, and could form a government with the support of some independents. I'd like to see Labour stay out of government and lead the opposition. That would be a massive change in Irish politics as it would help solidify an opening left-right divide and end the old civil war political divide. Being in opposition and having that bigger gene pool (because Labour has done well in the election in that it will increase its seats, just not reach the huge ambitions it set itself in leading the next government) to construct a better alternative/shadow cabinet government. It could have big consequences for FF, who might not recover to lead a government in the forseeable future, and become the third party of Irish politics. Irish politics will be fluid in the future, so much depends on Labour's position over whether or not the civil war divide returns...


  1. The European Movement in Ireland (EMI) just published a run-down of the EU policies of the the political parties. Could be interesting, if you have the time.

    Open Europe in the UK seemed to support the Sinn Féin and ULA message of outrage against the IMF and EU bailout, but pray, how would matters stand without it?

  2. Thanks, I saw parts of it earlier, but I haven't had time to read it all yet.

    It's complex, because we can't really cope with the terms of the bail out. Both Labour and Fine Gael (as well as the Greens and Fianna Fáil) still stick with austerity, though there is more emphasis on investment and growth. The problem with the bail out is that it protects all bond holders (even junior, ungaranteed bonders due to the ECB) and states that we must pay back all private debt. If it was simply paying of the sovereign public debt, it would be painful but more manageable.

    It's not just the bail out debt that needs to be paid off, but NAMA (our bad bank), the national debt we have already, and we have to ensure that the ECB loans and Irish Central Bank loans are fully paid back to. That's between €280-320 billion, depending on who you're talking to. We need the bail out while we recover and restructure our tax base, but a lot of the money is going into banks, to pay off their loans to banks in other European countries which don't have to go through the same hard choices and pain that we are. In that context there is a problem with the bail out, as it compounds the problems that brought us to the point of insolvency (the marriage of private and public debt) without solving any underlying issue. As the interest rate is far, far higher than the rate of growth we can expect for many years, it is hard to see how we can prevent default, and indeed the plan for 2013 and after seems to be aimed at an Irish and perhaps Greek default (at which point we wonder why we should go through the plan of austerity in order to default instead of defaulting now).

    All these issues with the bail out mean that there are good points against it (I've never understood the economic logic behind high interest rates to "punish" the debtor countries, when the problem was that interest rates were too high, but then it was more for domestic consumption than dealing with economic reality). So there is a certain rational anger base there. But it is true that we also need the bail out to fund the state in the first place, and all other revenue streams are simply not credible.

    I'm afraid it depends a lot on the renegotiation, how much debt the ECB is willing to forgive, and the fiscal governance of the Eurozone, which will decide on common or semi-common lending rates (if any Eurobond scheme is adopted). It's a tough sell, because we (and if Greece and the other "PIIGS" join us, the more indebted states) are asking the core states to share in the burden through their public and private sectors. Any governance change will have to go through Treaty amendment, so I wish these issues were more fully explored publically, as we do need to decide this in common.

    After all, if Ireland defaults, that still shifts the burden back on to the mainland continent.

  3. Ireland needs a change. With the enormously high unemployment rate, rising deficit and current predictions suggesting that some 100,000 will leave the country in the following years the country finds itself in a really tough position. It is time to let new leaders get Ireland out of the crisis.

  4. I'm sure the next government will be far, far more competent than the outgoing government, but I think this government needs more than competence, and I just hope it's up to the task.