| 13.9°C Dublin

Playing catch up: all across Europe the tired old parties are under attack from extremists

Close

Greek pensioners march in central Athens on Thursday.

Greek pensioners march in central Athens on Thursday.

AFP/Getty Images

Greek pensioners march in central Athens on Thursday.

In many ways, Ireland is only playing catch-up. The rise in the vote of Sinn Fein and the hard left parties, and the swelling protests against austerity, with some of them becoming militant and disruptive, are only a mirror of what has been happening for some time in the rest of Europe.

For years, it was said with admiration, and sometimes disdain, that the Irish were 'not like the Greeks or Spanish'. They 'didn't take to the streets and riot, and disrupt the everyday routines of politicians. And they still vote for the mainstream political parties'. But now, all that is changing.

Opinion polls show a huge and consistent rise in support for Sinn Fein and for the independents and parties of the hard left. The main parties are under serious attack and even together they could hardly form a Government. It is the same across Europe, where nationalist and Eurosceptic parties are on the rise such as UKIP in the UK and the National Front in France and more extreme parties in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Greece. Also part of this is the strength of nationalist separatist movements in Catalonia in Spain and in Scotland.

In Italy, the Northern League combines anti-immigration policy with separatism for Northern Italian region. The unifying feature here is a feeling of utter discontent with the existing political culture, be it in Westminster, Paris, Madrid or Brussels. A similar discontent with the prevailing political system is also growing in the United States.

In continental Europe, political extremism has become entrenched, and rewarded at the polls. In the Netherlands, the far right Freedom party, led by the charismatic Geert Wilders has polled very well, while the similarly nationalist and Eurosceptic Danish People's party is the third largest in Denmark. The so-called 'True Finns' in Finland are similarly strong, as is the Freedom party in Austria.

Irish leftists would be more likely to take heart from Greece, which has always had a very divided political landscape between left and right, and where Syriza, a coalition of the radical left, comprising Maoists, Trotskyites and Euro communists, is now the second largest party and basically the main opposition. It recently came first in the European elections. At the other end of the Greek spectrum, there is Golden Dawn, an ultra-nationalist right-wing party which openly sports Nazi-style imagery and has been involved in physical assaults and even alleged killings. Incredibly, in 2012, with 7pc of the vote, it entered the Greek parliament for the first time, with 21 seats.

Modern Sinn Fein, of course, presents itself as an ostensibly a left-wing party, but purists would argue that they aren't. Anyone who saw the cutting dismissal of SF as a party of the left by Ruth Coppinger of the Socialist Party (SP) on RTE's Prime Time programme this week will be under no illusion about the dog fight that awaits inside the new and multi-faceted 'left'. The Socialists Party's Paul Murphy recently took a seat that SF thought was theirs, so there will be no love lost as the different radical parties fight for the protest spoils.

Right now, what Sinn Fein represents is what the National Front does in France and UKIP does in the UK, an alternative voice and a protest against the tired political establishment and their culture of cronyism, perks and tone-deaf response to the suffering of ordinary people.

The Europe of jaded social democratic parties of the left, and jaded Christian Democrats of the centre right - not to mention those old big tent, centrist parties like the Gaullists in France and Fianna Fail in Ireland - is changing and crumbling fast, and the landscape has been transformed by new elements of the far left, far right and the openly nationalist.

It was unlikely to be any different after the recent economic turmoil. Now, the challenge is to form a coherent government out of it, but even before that, we will face the instability of endless tug of war politics and economic uncertainty.

Indo Review