John Coulter writes for Tribune Magazine on the recent Irish elections. Dr John Coulter is a journalist for the Daily Star.
The recent Dail general election in the year Irish republicans commemorate the centenary of the failed Easter Rising has marked a fundamental political realignment in the Irish Republic.
What is clear is that it will take a political miracle for the outgoing coalition of the centre-right Fine Gael party and Irish Labour to re-take control of the reins of government in Dublin’s Leinster House.
Labour – one of the island’s oldest parties (founded in the same year as Sinn Fein, 1905) – was given an electoral drubbing on a scale British voters dished out to the Tories’ junior partners, the Liberal Democrats, in last year’s Westminster poll.
Southern Irish voters also seem to have forgiven the main opposition party, the centre-Left Fianna Fail, which was in charge of the state when the once globally renowned Celtic Tiger economy went bust.
The dose of austerity given to Irish citizens was among the most bitter economic medicine ever endured in the history of the Republic, sparking successes for Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein, a raft of smaller left-wing parties and a host of independent TDs (MPs), which will make forming the 32nd Dail on 10 March 10 one of the most challenging tasks since the bloody Irish Civil War of the 1920s which pitched republican against republican.
Irish politics has long been branded as the art of the impossible, and in Leinster House the impossible may be the only stable way forward to avert another general election in a matter of months.
This is a coalition between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – the equivalent in Westminster terms of a coalition between the Conservatives and Labour.
Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have a bitter history as dogmatic opponents during the Civil War. A FF/FG coalition would be a political “peace treaty” making the unofficial end of hostilities.
At the core of the coalition composition debacle is that none of the main parties want to do business with Sinn Fein.
Under the careful guidance of former MP for West Belfast Gerry Adams, the party has gone from being he apologist of the IRA terror campaign to the main champion of the anti-austerity movement in the Republic.
With a significant increase in its representation in the Dail, it would have been logical to assume that both FF and FG should have courted Sinn Fein as a natural minority coalition partner.
But the crimes of the Provos are not easily forgiven or forgotten and a brutal agenda of “Anybody But Sinn Fein” is being adopted.
There is a health splattering of fringe parties now in the Dail, including what’s left of Irish Labour, the Social Democrats, Green Party, and the hard left Anti-Austerity Alliance People Before Profit movement. Vocal these TDs will certainly be, but they lack the numbers – or the common agenda – to team up with either of the “big two’, FF or FG.
This leaves the high wire act of FF or FG teaming up with the wide range of independent TDs. It seems logical on paper, as this year has seen the election one of the largest collection of independents in the history of the Dail.
But in reality, each of the independents will have their personal agendas for their specific constituencies, leaving Fianna Fail and Fine Gael having to juggle national and international concerns with traditional “parish pump” issues which form the bedrock of many independent TDs’ campaigns.
And then there’s the dark horse option involving Sinn Fein. The party has turned in its best Dail performance since it dropped its abstentionist policy on Leinster House in the 1980s.
If the FF and FG are determined to snub Adams and prevent him from becoming Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), could Sinn Fein form an effective “rainbow coalition” opposition?
The Sinn Fein rainbow could – theoretically– have mustered enough TDs to force FF or FG to form a minority government. However, that move would have placed the Dail in a highly volatile situation politically, and almost certainly guaranteeing a second general election before the end of this year.
Sinn Fein will be hoping its buoyant Dail showing will be a perfect platform for its Stormont onslaught when the Assembly poll is called for May 5.
Party activists will pour across the Irish border in a bid to make Sinn Fein the largest party in Stormont, thereby allowing it to lay claim to the coveted First Minister’s post.
Sinn Fein could find itself in an unusual position of being in government in the Northern Ireland Assembly and in opposition in the Dail.
But the real problem for the Dail – no matter what the coalition combination – will be the June 23 European Union referendum in Britain. What happens to the recovering Southern economy if Brexit becomes a reality?
Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland is campaigning for a “Remain” vote, as Brexit would condemn the Irish Republic to a geographically irrelevant fringe in the EU.