The following article by Robert Tolan is useful to those in the mainland United Kingdom in an environment here in the UK in which the BBC fails to cover Irish politics (both North and South of the border) effectively. Many of us here do not even know that Ireland is about to have a general election, nor do most of us realise how utterly dysfunctional Irish politics is.
Leo Eric Varadkar is an Irish Fine Gael politician, and is the current Premier or “Taoiseach” of Ireland. Varadkar relied upon the support of Independents and the abstention of Fianna Fáil TDs (i.e. Irish MPs) to support his premiership. On 14 June 2017, he was appointed Taoiseach in a 57–50 vote with 47 abstentions. He became Ireland’s first openly gay Taoiseach, as well as the youngest. However a general election in Ireland is due. Varadkar has called a national election for 8 February. Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael closely matched with fellow centre-right party, Fianna Fáil, in polls.
In the 1980’s, Ireland’s Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, described the country as a, ‘land of strange happenings’. This was at a time of unprecedented violence and decay in the island’s institutions. At this time, effective Northern Irish politics did not exist, the bloodletting left no time for talk. Politics in the Republic also barely existed in what was effectively a one party state. The modicum of political engagement that did take place resulted in the Mahon Tribunal which exposed endemic corruption across all levels of the political apparatus.
Today, the situation is not much better. The Republic’s latest government, under Premier Leo Varadkar, was a minority one led by Fine Gael and supported by Fianna Fáil, and it collapsed as a no-confidence vote in the Health Minister, Simon Harris, appeared on the horizon (the government has failed to cure a dysfunctional health service that consumes huge resources but produces poor results). The latest Sunday Times poll places Fine Gael 12 points behind Fianna Fáil amidst widespread outrage at their inability to address the housing and health crises. However, voters will be aware of Fianna Fail’s partial responsibility for the inaction of the last four years. They propped Fine Gael up with their confidence and supply agreement. Fianna Fáil’s leader, Michael Martin, will struggle to convince much of the electorate that things will change under his leadership. Martin’s challenge points to the wider problem of Irish politics, the two main parties are almost identical. They both enact conservative fiscal policies and mostly liberal social policies once in power. This means Ireland has really been a one party state since independence as all of its governments have been either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael led.
In a democracy, it would be typical to assume voters could choose the next largest party, Sinn Féin, but as ever, things are not that simple in Ireland. Sinn Féin is not yet free of its associations with dissident Republicanism and, to a populace that appears to favour low tax and low spend policies, their extremely left-wing economics may be too much to countenance. The national broadcaster, RTÉ, has decided to leave Sinn Féin, out of its leader debate which typifies the view that the party are fit for opposition but not for government. Due to Ireland’s system of proportional democracy, it is extremely difficult to gain an outright majority so this means haggling must be done after the election. Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael will have to negotiate with a litany of independents, a resurgent Green party and a Labour party whose flame is dying.
An unintended consequence of this quirk is the support of certain independents may be dependent upon resurfacing a by-road in a parish very few people have heard of, something that rankles with those committed to a modern Ireland. It seems as if the major Irish parties are out of big ideas that can energise the country the same way independence did a century ago. Hopefully, Ireland still is the land where what Haughey called ‘happy endings’ are possible.
Picture: the Cliffs of Moher