Europe and the February 2016 Irish general election

Michael Holmes

Although the outgoing Fine Gael-Labour coalition was defeated, no clear alternative emerged and the radical left secured its best-ever result in an Irish election. The outcome is likely to be some form of agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Background

The 2016 general election in the Republic of Ireland was one where the EU was at the heart of the campaign, but in a manner that meant hardly any substantive discussion of Ireland’s relationship with the EU. Irish politics has been dominated by the economic crisis since 2008. Financial support had been sought from the EU and the IMF in November 2010, and an €85 billion bail-out package was put in place, accompanied, of course, by stringent austerity conditions and tight supervision by the EU-ECB-IMF troika.

The government at the time was a coalition between the centre-right Fianna Fáil and the small Green Party. They suffered very badly in the February 2011 general election – Fianna Fáil’s vote fell by almost 60%, and they lost 51 out of 71 seats, while the Greens lost every one of their six seats. However, the incoming coalition between another centre-right party, Fine Gael, and the Labour Party did not represent any major shift in policy. It was committed to working within the constraints imposed by the troika, and the cutbacks continued.

At one level, the economic strategy seemed to work. Unemployment declined gradually from a peak of 15% in late 2011, Ireland exited the bailout programme in 2013 and by the end of 2015 the country had the fastest-growing economy in the EU. But from another perspective, there were continuing problems, with the decision to impose water charges being a particular focal point for public protest.

There are two technical features of the election worth noting. First, a new law had been passed in 2012 introducing a 30% gender quota for all parties. Second, the Dáil (lower house) had been trimmed from 166 seats to 158, carried out by an independent commission through a significant revision of constituency boundaries. It is also worth noting the high degree of party political volatility in the period between 2011 and 2016, when three new parties were formed and with three significant electoral alliances. The three parties were: the centre-left Social Democrats; the right-wing conservative Renua Ireland; and the left-wing Independents 4 Change. The alliances were: a co-operation agreement between the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit; the Independent Alliance; and the Right 2 Change movement which was a loose grouping of left-leaning parties, trade unions and individuals. Of these, only Renua failed to win a seat.

The campaign

From the beginning, both Fine Gael and Labour argued that after a painful but necessary adjustment, the country was now back on the road to prosperity and an end to austerity was in sight. However, that depended on keeping to the narrow path. Fine Gael’s manifesto was titled “Let’s keep the recovery going”, while Labour talked of the need to “sustain and spread the economic recovery”. Unsurprisingly, there was virtually no criticism of the EU from them. Fine Gael has always been a strongly pro-European party, and it claimed credit for “regaining our status as a committed and active member of the European Union” and asserted that “Ireland has returned to the heart of Europe”. Back in 2011, Labour had been more critical of the EU, but once in government their tune changed. This time their manifesto declared “we believe that Ireland will be strong and our interests are best served when there is a strong European Union”.

While there were many strands to the opposition, a common view was that the recovery was narrowly confined, and far too few people were experiencing any actual improvement in their lives. If anything, a deeply unequal economy and society was becoming still more engrained. Fianna Fáil argued that government policy “threatens to make us more unequal and divided”, but also committed themselves to “uphold Ireland’s EU and national fiscal obligations” and “to adhere fully to EU and national rules”. Sinn Féin also argued that “it isn’t a fair recovery. It is a two-tier recovery”. But they adopted a much more critical tone in relation to the EU, stating that “recent governments have been totally deferential to the EU”. They did not espouse an outright anti-EU policy, but called for reforms of decision-making in the EU, the introduction of a “growth and investment oriented policy of the EU” and they criticised TTIP.

Among the smaller parties, attitudes to Europe showed general support for the idea of integration but criticism of aspects of the EU. The Green Party was one of the few to talk about the migration crisis, arguing that a “retreat to nationalism and the closure of borders is precisely the wrong direction” for Europe, but identifying TTIP as “a major retrograde step”. The Social Democrats talked about “a deep sense of injustice that these banking debts were foisted on the Irish people due to a combination of weak and incompetent Irish politicians and bullying from European institutions”, while the common platform of the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit declared opposition to TTIP and CETA and generally to “a Europe run in the interests of big business and the bankers” while calling “for a democratic and socialist Europe of the millions, not the millionaires.”

However, despite the fact that the economic situation created by the crash and the bail-out was central to the election campaign, the EU itself did not feature in any significant way in the actual campaign debates. The campaign kicked off with a debate about what was termed the ‘fiscal space’ – in other words, the degree of budgetary freedom that was now available. There was broad agreement that there was room to allow a limited relaxation of austerity, but each party chose a different path – tax reductions to the right of the spectrum, greater public spending to the left. This was linked to two further dominant policy issues in the campaign. First of all, there was a major debate around the issue of housing, as a return to rapid growth in house prices was accompanied by a serious continuing problem of evictions and homelessness. Second, a crisis in the health care system was a continuing issue.

But as the campaign continued, another issue began to come to the fore – the question of government formation. Opinion polls showed that the incumbent coalition was very unlikely to be returned, with Fine Gael stuck just below 30% and Labour struggling around 8%. There was a lack of trust in the government, and their basic argument about economic recovery did not seem to be gaining much traction. But the polls also indicated that this was not transferring to any clear alternative. Fianna Fáil was lodged around 20% with Sinn Féin around 16%, and there were a clutch of smaller parties jostling between 2-4% each. The polls also suggested that a large minority of people were likely to vote for independent, non-party candidates.

The results and outcome

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Table 1: Results of the February 2016 Irish general election

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Votes (%)        Change                        Seats                Change

Fine Gael                                 25.5                 -10.6                50                    -26

Fianna Fáil                              24.3                 +6.9                 44                    +24

Sinn Féin                                 13.8                 +3.9                 23                    +9

Labour Party                             6.6                 -12.8                  7                    -30

AAA/PBP                                 3.9                 +3.9                   6                    +2

Independent Alliance               4.2                 new*                 6                    +1

Independents 4 Change            1.5                 new*                 4                    0

Social Democrats                      3.0                 new*                 3                    0

Green Party                               2.7                 +0.9                   2                    +2

Independents                          11.7                 +0.4                 13                    -1

Turnout: 65.1%

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Source: RTE (2016) Election 2016: national summary, online at http://www.rte.ie/news/election-2016/ [accessed 4 March 2016]

*First time to contest an election; formed during previous Dáil and thus already held seats.

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As Table 1 shows, the results confirmed the patterns evident in the opinion polls, and there was no late surge by either the government parties or the opposition. After their success in 2011, both Fine Gael and Labour saw big falls in their support, although despite dropping more than 10% of their vote and losing 26 seats, Fine Gael just clung on to their position as the largest party. Labour lost two-thirds of their vote, and only barely reached the target of 7 seats needed to hold on to full party rights in the new Dáil. Fianna Fáil could be considered the main winners from the election, as they more than doubled their number of seats. However, having been the dominant party throughout most of the history of Irish politics, they remained still far below their traditional level of support. And Sinn Féin, who had been growing steadily, continued this rise without any achieving any dramatic breakthrough.

A prominent feature of the result was fragmentation. At least nine parties or groups gained representation (ten if the two components of the AAA-PBP alliance are treated as separate parties), and there were also a large number of independents elected, reflecting the highly localised, parochial and clientelistic nature of Irish politics.

Inevitably, the results meant a complicated picture for government formation. There were three broad groupings, none of which was even close to a majority: a centre-right bloc with Fine Gael at its core, another centre-right bloc centred on Fianna Fáil, and a left-wing bloc including Sinn Féin. Given that the parties in the left-wing bloc were strongly opposed to the austerity programme, they were largely out of consideration. However, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would have the seats for a potentially cohesive and coherent centre-right government.

Such a deal was anathema to both parties – they had been the rival poles of Irish politics for almost 100 years, even if their differences were more tribal than ideological. The 32nd Dáil met for the first time on 10 March and again on 6 April, but on both occasions it could not elect a Taoiseach. Eventually, over forty days after the election, the two parties began direct talks about the possible formation of a government, either a grand coalition between the two or else Fianna Fáil support for a minority Fine Gael government.

Conclusions

Similar to other European countries, the economic crisis is leading to some potentially significant political transformations. In Ireland, this has taken the form of a weakening of the traditional parties of government and a boost for the radical left. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, there is no extreme right trading on anti-immigrant policies, nor is there an openly Eurosceptic right-wing party akin to UKIP or Alternativ für Deutschland. The radical left secured by far their best ever result in Ireland, albeit in a very fragmented manner between Sinn Féin, AAA-PBP and Independents 4 Change.

Instead, the election may have led to the two traditional rivals being pushed into each other’s arms. Throughout the economic crisis, governing parties – particularly those in bail-out countries – have suffered defeats. The 2016 Irish election can be seen as a test of whether a government could sell a story of recovery and hold on to power. The answer was very clearly no, but it has thrown up the tantalising prospect of a fundamental re-adjustment of Irish politics.

Michael Holmes is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Liverpool Hope University.