Monday 26 September 2016

Events in the cradle of democracy could have a major impact on the next Dáil

Published 07/07/2015 | 02:30

Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty was in Athens for the vote
Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty was in Athens for the vote

Pearse Doherty wasn't in Athens over the weekend to work on his tan. He was campaigning - not in the Greek referendum - but for the upcoming general election here.

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Doherty travelled to ensure Sinn Féin wasn't outflanked on its left by Paul Murphy & co - and to establish Sinn Féin as the Irish Syriza in the eyes of voters here.

Changed times. Irish general election campaigns aren't renowned as outward-looking. This is a country that, in 1961, had an election where the teaching of Irish was the dominant issue. Even in recent years, international affairs haven't got a look in.

The next election though will be different. Events in Greece will have a potentially huge bearing on the shape of the next Dáil. Exactly what that bearing will be though is anybody's guess right now.

Even allowing for the resounding victory of the 'No' side in Greece, the jury is out as to whether Sinn Féin is wise to tie itself so closely to Syriza. The hard left percentage of the electorate, where Sinn Féin is competing with the Socialist Party and other anti-austerity Independents - can only win the party so many seats. If Sinn Féin wants to challenge Fianna Fáil's position as the main opposition party, it'll also have to appeal to middle-ground voters.

Will such Irish voters see Syriza's defiance as people power standing up to the dastardly and bullying Troika? Or as reckless brinkmanship that threatens to destroy the Greek economy? Much probably depends on what happens over the next fortnight.

For now, the images of queues outside ATMs and empty supermarket shelves have been replaced by scenes of people in celebratory mood.

But the reality is the referendum result changes little. Greece still needs to cut a deal.

It has less than two weeks to come up with €3.5bn to repay the ECB. Failure to do so could result in the ECB cutting off the emergency funding of Greek banks, which would inevitably trigger the country's exit from the eurozone and ensuing chaos.

Over two thousand years ago, King Pyrrhus in Ancient Greece gave the world the term Pyrrhic victory - Sunday's referendum result may yet rank in that category.

If the EU and ECB were to backtrack considerably and cave in to Greece, it would obviously be a massive boost to Sinn Féin and the other anti-austerity parties in Ireland. But that seems unlikely.

The governments of the likes of Germany, Finland and the Netherlands just couldn't sell that to their electorates. Even smaller nations such as Estonia and Slovenia aren't keen. And with elections to come in the coming months in Spain, Portugal and here, Angela Merkel isn't going to shaft the Christian Democratic governments in those countries by capitulating to Syriza.

It remains possible that a compromise can be reached to keep Greece in the euro and allow Syriza save face. The resignation of Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis suggests Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras wants that. He and most Greeks are clearly keen to avoid leaving the eurozone. But with trust broken down between both sides, there is no guarantee of success.

Perhaps the ever cautious Sinn Féin feels it needs to firstly shore up its core support, but it's taking a serious gamble by continuing to identify so closely with Syriza. The events of the next few weeks will dictate whether it pays off or backfires.

But it's not the only party that'll be watching events in Greece closely. It would have been more straightforward for Fine Gael if Greece had voted 'Yes' in the referendum.

That would almost certainly have led to Tsipras's resignation - and definitive proof that Syriza's hardball tactics, which a percentage of the electorate here want the Coalition to follow, hadn't worked and had wreaked havoc in the meantime.

The referendum result puts Fine Gael on the back foot. Assuming Europe isn't now going to roll over for Syriza, that may well be temporary. But Fine Gael's mixed messages on debt relief - not least from Enda Kenny in Brussels a couple of weeks ago - haven't helped. The Government is in favour of debt relief for Greece - in the shape of restructuring or re-profiling the debt (pushing it out longer, giving temporary debt holidays etc), but not debt write-down.

Given we've loaned Greece €350m, and with the possibility of substantially more to come in a third bailout deal, many voters would find that a reasonable enough position.

But Fine Gael hasn't been clear about communicating that.

Only yesterday, European Affairs Minister Dara Murphy was forced to clarify that the Coalition was "always" supportive of debt relief. It's a complex enough line to sell, so they need to get their message straight - starting at the very top.

For Fianna Fáil and Labour, the big worry is they get squeezed out in a polarisation of public opinion between a Fine Gael way and a Syriza-inspired Sinn Féin way - FG -would love that. Micheál Martin's strategy of sticking the boot into both sides of the debate might, however, come closest to summing up most Irish voters' views on what's going on between Greece and the Troika.

Labour, though, runs a risk of alienating its liberal voting base, if it's seen as adopting a tough line on Greece.

It's clearly not just Syriza that will have to do a delicate balancing act over the coming weeks.

Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on newstalk.com at 10am.

Irish Independent

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