Sunday 18 August 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'The political earthquakes we were warned of didn't happen but Italy can send tremors across continent'

'It would be a big stretch to believe the results point to the Greens returning a game-changing number of TDs after the next election.' (stock photo)
'It would be a big stretch to believe the results point to the Greens returning a game-changing number of TDs after the next election.' (stock photo)
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

The dust is settling. Most of the results from the past week's elections on this island, in Britain and across the continent are in. What do they mean?

Here in the Republic, the elections change less than one might think, given all the brouhaha. Neither of the two big parties capable of forming a government has registered any significant change in support.

The post-crash political landscape shows no signs of returning to its pre-crash contours in which Fianna Fáil dominated. The support for the two big Civil War parties appears to be have settled down.

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From a time as recently as the 1980s when they hoovered up as much as 85pc of the vote, the new normal in Irish politics has them sharing around half of it.

The other major feature of political change after the crash was more vote fragmentation. This is a trend observed over decades in European countries, particularly in those using proportional representation electoral systems.

The same trend has been evident in Ireland. Last Friday's elections showed no sign of a reversal.

These developments have implications for the next general election and its aftermath. Fragmented parliaments mean forming coalitions becomes more difficult and more time-consuming.

The proliferation of parties - and in Ireland's case, uniquely, a proliferation of independents - means coalitions tend to be less cohesive. More fragmented parliaments also mean governments have smaller majorities, or no majority at all.

All of this can make for less stable and less effective government. That is exactly what we are experiencing in Ireland.

Talk of when the next election is to take place has been incessant. When politicians are on constant hair-trigger, they are distracted from the business of government.

When there is a focus on business, the current administration has too often avoided tough decisions. It has, for instance, caved in to the demands of every public sector grouping since it failed to face down threats by gardaí to leave the weakest and most vulnerable in society prey to the most ruthless and vicious.

The Government's prioritisation of the most powerful of vested interests is evident in the budgetary figures: public sector pay has grown at more than twice the rate of all other areas of public spending over almost half a decade.

Attempts at straightforward vote-buying have also been evident. The announcement last week that €100m of taxpayers' money will be used to "compensate" already heavily subsidised business people who damage the environment (beef farmers) for turbulence in their marketplace was a particularly egregious example, both in quantum and timing.

Ireland has got away with government of this kind in recent years because the economy is motoring along nicely.

When that changes, there will be a reckoning and all bets will be off. If it doesn't change before the next election, then the 33rd Dáil is likely to look very similar to the current one in terms of policy substance and effectiveness.

If last Friday's elections did bring a significant change, it was not the rise of the Greens. Though that party did well, Friday night's exit poll wildly exaggerated the gains it would make.

When the votes were actually counted, the Greens went from being a fringe party in local government to a small one - their share of the first preference vote was 5.5pc. That is lower than the Labour party, which is edging towards irrelevance.

The Greens' vote share was considerably higher in the Eeuropean election than in the locals, but it would be a big stretch to believe that these results point to the Greens returning a game-changing number of TDs after the next election.

By far the most significant result of last Friday's election is one which points to future electoral stability, rather than change. Sinn Féin is the only party since the Progressive Democrats to become a middle-sized party.

It has long appeared on course to rival Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael owing to its unrelenting electoral advance since its military wing stopped taking lives to advance its cause. But those advances went spectacularly into reverse. Sinn Féin's share in the European and local elections collapsed, crashing by 40pc on five years earlier.

Coming on top of its failed presidential election campaign last year, the party has undergone one of the biggest reversals of any opposition party in recent times.

The conventional wisdom had been that once Gerry Adams left the stage, taking with him his paramilitary baggage, an untainted leader from a new generation would bring the party to the next level. The conventional wisdom has been spectacularly wrong. Mary Lou McDonald is proving more of a liability than an asset.

Sinn Féin can take more succour from its performance north of the Border, retaining its European Parliament seat. So did the party's fellow hard-liners on the other side of the sectarian divide, the DUP.

Noteworthy was the gain of the Alliance Party at the expense of the Ulster Unionist Party. This provides more evidence that unionists of a socially liberal and pro-EU outlook are uncomfortable with Brexit and the direction of British politics.

There is good reason for those concerns. The hastily scheduled holding of the European Parliament election across the water has merely served to highlight how divided and polarised our neighbour is over Brexit.

Among other things, the result makes it highly likely a Brexiteer will become prime minister by late summer.

Already candidates for the Conservative leadership are lining up to demand a change to the Northern Ireland backstop. Without changes, they threaten to exit without a deal. If that happens, this island will face new borders, come what may.

Across the continent, the outcome of the European elections points to limited change. The vote fragmented further, as expected, but a surge for the eurosceptics did not materialise to the extent many observers expected.

In the bloc's two most powerful countries - Germany and France - there were no gains for the extremes.

In Italy, the EU's third biggest country and its most economically fragile, developments were not so good. The winners were those who promise they can easily make things better and the reason things are bad is because Johnny Foreigner, in various guises, is conspiring against ordinary, decent Italians.

Rome is again on course for a clash with Brussels over its risky budget plans. The election results will embolden the government to take on the eurocrats of the north who enforce the fiscal rules euro area countries have agreed to respect. Already, financiers are getting their money out of the country for fear of what could happen.

Italy is Europe's weakest link. If it snaps, the continent will change. It will not be for the better.

Irish Independent

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