Ireland: economic crisis, early election?


If this is your first foray into Irish politics, you might want to start by reading this morning’s post.

Ireland’s most successful politician in half a century, Bertie Ahern, announced his resignation as Fianna Fail leader and Taoiseach on 2 April 2008, and soon after his Minister of Finance, Brian Cowen, was elected as the new Taoiseach.

Early polls put Cowen’s government in a strong position, with Fianna Fail polling over 40%, well ahead of Fine Gael in the mid-20s. His government’s first challenge came in June, when the Lisbon Treaty went to a national referendum.

The Lisbon Treaty was written as a replacement for the failed European Constitution, which had been defeated after the Netherlands and France voted it down in referenda. The other 26 states managed to avoid taking the Treaty to a referendum, but Ireland’s constitution needed to be amended, which meant a referendum.

The Treaty had the support of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, the Labour Party, and most of the Green Party, as well as the support of the trade union movement and the Church, who explicitly came out to combat perceptions that the Treaty would result in abortion being legalised in Ireland.

In spite of this widespread institutional support, the treaty was defeated, with 53.4% voting “no”. This threw the EU’s plans into chaos, and calls for Ireland to vote again began soon after.

Ireland was hit hard by the early onset of the global financial crisis, with the country officially entering recession in September 2008, and Cowen announced that the December budget would be brought forward to October. Around this period, Fianna Fail’s support fell dramatically, running neck-and-neck with Fine Gael by October.

The October 14 budget was brutal, cutting back many government programs, including pensioner’s medical benefits and free education, with university fees re-introduced. Polls in late October had Fine Gael clearly ahead of Fianna Fail, who had fallen to 26%.

The crisis has continued to worsen, and Ireland is now seen as one of the worst-hit countries in the western world. A month ago, the government’s performance hit a new low, with Fianna Fail dropping to third place in an Irish Times poll, on 22%, behind Labour on 24% (double their 2007 vote) and Fine Gael on 32%. Sinn Fein had also gone from 2% in 2007 to 9%, while the Green Party remained stuck on 4%. The poll also put the government’s approval ratings at a shocking 14%.

Polls since that time have continued to put Fianna Fail neck-and-neck with Labour, and also demonstrate that the Greens are in danger of facing a wipe-out if they continue to support Cowen’s government.

Speculation of an early election has continued to grow, with a recent poll saying that a majority of the Irish people want an election now. Speculation has also begun that, in a desperate attempt to prevent a collapse, the Green Party could switch and support a new coalition government not including Fianna Fail, which could then call an early election.

The economic crisis seems to have changed the minds of the Irish people in regards to the European Union, with polls in January showing a clear majority supporting the passage of the Lisbon Treaty. A new referendum is scheduled for October 2009, following local and European Parliament elections in early June, which could be an opportunity for voters to unleash their anger on the governing Fianna Fail and Green Party.

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  1. The Irish Greens may be aligned with other Green parties in terms of policy, but their readiness to dump principle in favour of cabinet positions was spectacular to say the least (it seemed to take the German Greens much longer to sell out!).

    My understanding from activists I know in Ireland is that the Greens’ membership has been thrown into some crisis over the MPs’ “pragmatic” actions. Support for the Lisbon Treaty would also have been disastrous. Rather than some great statement of cross-National progressivism, the Treaty is yet another statement of how big business needs must come first in the new Europe, with a handful of sweeteners for the unions. No wonder the ordinary voters of Ireland opposed it and that the arguments of small groups of left-wing activists were able to find such a hearing.

    The Irish Greens deserve all they get, I’m afraid, for the mess they have got themselves into.

  2. Yeah, I agree that the decision to go into government with Fianna Fail, and everything that has gone with it, was spectacularly unwise for the Irish Greens.

    The only way to redeem themselves, I would think, would be to find a way to support a Fine Gael/Labour government with them outside government and use that position to repair their links with their base.

  3. I haven’t been following this too closely, but from what I can tell the Greens have been really stupid here. I know they have lost a number of members who have jumped ship and it looks like they will get wiped off unless they change their positions soon. Strangely enough stopping the support of the government at this time seems like it could lead to an early election and a growth in support for the Greens.

    So, my question is, why aren’t they doing it?

  4. Ideally, what they would want to do is get out of their current governing arrangement without triggering an election.

    Fine Gael + Labour + Greens = 77
    Fianna Fail = 76

    Then it boils down to the independents and Sinn Fein. If you assume Sinn Fein supports the FG/Labour government, then that brings its numbers up to 81, then you need two of the independents, which would be plausible.

    In this scenario the Greens would support the new government but wouldn’t take ministries. They need time to recover from this massive cockup before an election.

  5. I guess that is true, but does it seem plausible? I think if the Greens were to get out Fianna Fall would call an election – they really wouldn’t have any other choice, unless they think they can form government on their own and hold out for a little longer to try an recover. Whatever happens, the Greens need to change or they will be obliviated at the next election.

  6. Hmm, I don’t know. If an alternative Fine Gael/Labour/Greens/Sinn Fein govt is proposed, and FF can either resign or call an election, I don’t think they would call an election. Remember they are currently polling about half of their 2007 result and in danger of dropping into third place. Some time in Opposition might do them good.

    On the other hand, Fine Gael and Labour might prefer to bring down the government and force an election, as they would both undoubtedly gain seats and be able to form a stable two-party governing majority.

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