x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Different party, much the same policies when Irish election result comes in

The current ruling party in the Irish Republic, Fianna Fail, is due for a drubbing in this Friday's elections over its mishandling of the country's financial crisis, which has involved a €100m bail-out from the EU and the IMF, but the party due to take its place is barely distinguishable from its rival.

'I must away and vote now: and vote on Inishfree.' An Irish policeman carries the ballot box away from a local resident's house used as a polling station on Inishfree, off the coast of Ireland, a place made famous by the poet WB Yeats. Ireland's general election kicked off Wednesday in the Atlantic Ocean as electors on remote islands began voting two days early in case bad weather delays their ballot boxes getting to the mainland.
'I must away and vote now: and vote on Inishfree.' An Irish policeman carries the ballot box away from a local resident's house used as a polling station on Inishfree, off the coast of Ireland, a place made famous by the poet WB Yeats. Ireland's general election kicked off Wednesday in the Atlantic Ocean as electors on remote islands began voting two days early in case bad weather delays their ballot boxes getting to the mainland.

DUBLIN // Four months ago, Ireland was at the centre of world affairs, its looming bankruptcy threatening to take the Eurozone with it, perhaps even the global economy.

Financial markets held their breath as EU and IMF officials landed in Dublin to strong-arm the Irish government into implementing a "rescue deal" whereby Ireland's 4.4 million people were forced to pay back €100 million pumped in their imploded property market by reckless bankers at home and abroad.

Yet tomorrow, when Irish voters will use parliamentary elections to evict the government which made that promise, trading screens will not so much as flicker.

Despite their rage at the massive debt imposed on them and their children, equivalent to roughly three times the state's annual tax revenue, most Irish voters will now opt for parties that have already undertaken, with only minor quibbles, to shoulder that burden.

Certain to lead the next government is Enda Kenny, a 59-year-old former school teacher whose Fine Gael ("Tribe of the Gaels", in Irish) party is riding at 38 per cent in the latest polls, up from 27 per cent at the last election.

A centre-right party, pro-business and hostile to public spending, Fine Gael would be, to foreign observers, almost indistinguishable from the pro-business, centre-right and latterly anti-spending Fianna Fail ("Soldiers of Destiny") of outgoing prime minister Brian Cowen.

Such distinctions as there are between the two parties are rooted in a brief civil war which broke out between rival nationalist factions after Britain's withdrawal from southern Ireland in 1922. Since then, every Dublin government has been headed by one or the other faction.

In exile, the Irish have cultivated an image as rebels, fighters, poets and hell-raisers, but many of those who remained behind are in practice deeply conservative, cautious and status-conscious.

Faced with a similar financial crisis, Icelanders took to the streets of Reykjavik, brought down the old order and told foreign investors that the money they had gambled and lost on Icelandic banks was their own problem.

Apart from a couple of orderly and not overly large demonstrations, the Irish have proved much more easily led. The failed government of Mr Cowen was allowed to limp on in office for more than two years after the extent of its disgrace had become apparent. It even managed to survive for three months after the humiliation of the IMF-EU diktat.

Having quietly bided their time, Irish voters will now seek a quantum of solace from the drubbing they are about to inflict on Fianna Fail, despised not only for its incompetent handling of the financial collapse but also for wasting the opportunities of the "Celtic Tiger" boom which preceded it.

Having reigned for 61 of its 79 years in existence, the party founded by Eamon de Valera may now never do so again. The latest opinion polls show its support down to a bare 14 per cent, a third of its vote in the 2007 election. Many senior members and ministers are declining to seek re-election, including Bertie Ahern and Mr Cowen, the two Taoisigh ("leaders") who presided for the last 13 years. The party's new leader, former health minister Michael Martin, could see it wiped out in Dublin.

The third main party, Eamon Gilmore's centre-left Labour Party, at one point led Mr Kenny's Fine Gael but has since dwindled to 20 per cent in pre-election polls, with voters turning away from its commitment to higher social spending.

Nor can Labour claim to offer an alternative to the other parties on the crucial issue of the economy, echoing their vague proposals to somehow obtain more favourable terms from the IMF and EU for the loans already extended to Ireland so its taxpayers could pay off the bankers' losses.

The only major party to oppose this consensus, and to call for a repudiation of the debt, is Sinn Fein, whose Northern Ireland-born leader, Gerry Adams, is seeking to enter southern Irish politics by contesting a Dail (parliament) seat in County Louth.

But despite polling a healthy 12 per cent, Sinn Fein's prospects are constrained by its lingering association with the now-disbanded militant group, the Irish Republican Army. It has also been unable to say how it would pay for the daily running of the state after it burned the IMF and European Central Bank.

The next government is likely therefore to be a repeat of previous middle-of-the-road coalitions between Fine Gael and Labour, unable or unwilling to carry out significant reforms. Or perhaps, if Fine Gael does well enough, Mr Kenny's party will rule alone with support from some of the independent politicians likely to be elected by voters disgusted with mainstream parties.

The Ireland it will inherit suffers from unemployment at 13.4 per cent, rising emigration projected to reach a record 50,000 a year, failed domestic banks which are still sucking in state money while choking off credit to business, and a growing threat of lethal mass default by thousands of residential mortgage holders who are both broke and in negative equity. Many experts predict that the worst is yet to come for Ireland's stagnating economy.

Electoral victory is likely therefore to prove a poisoned chalice. It is a mark of the Irish establishment's strange and enduring faith in business as usual that so many veteran politicians are still struggling to seize it.

Foreign.desk@thenational.ae