04/05/2007 - Analysis
On 29th April the Prime Minister (Taoiseach in Gaelic), Bertie Ahern (Fianna Fail, FF), asked the President of the Republic, Mary McAleese, to dissolve Parliament and to convene general elections for 24th May next. "Once again the time has come for the people to decide the future of Ireland. In the next few weeks I promise to give the Irish the campaign they deserve, a campaign of themes and policies and not of insult and aggression. These general elections involve the upkeep of the progress achieved over the last ten years and the consolidation of this," he declared.
In Ireland it is the Prime Minister's responsibility during his term in office to decide when he will invite the electorate to vote. However a term in office cannot exceed five years and the Taoiseach can ask the President of the Republic to dissolve both houses of Parliament at any time. The elections must take place 30 days following the dissolution of Parliament.
The date of the next general election has been the focus of a number of debates over the last few weeks. Some accuse Bertie Ahern of not having called the elections earlier; others believe that the Taoiseach had an interest in allowing the opposition to dominate the political arena and to display their differences of opinion. In addition to this the choice of a Thursday as election day was the source of polemic; a number of people, notably the Green Party (GP) leader, Trevor Sargent argued that this would prevent students (70,000 in the country), many of whom live far from their constituency, from fulfilling their civic duty.
The Irish Political System
The Oireachtas (Parliament) comprises two houses. The first one is the Dail Eireann (the Chamber of Representatives) which has 166 members elected for a five year period maximum within 43 constituencies. MPs are appointed by proportional voting according to a single transferable voting system. The voter appoints the person or people he wishes to vote for in order of preference from a list of candidates. He writes the figure 1 in front of the candidate who would be his first choice and then if he wants to 2, 3, 4 etc ... in front of the names of the other candidates on the list. The first counting operation involves the calculation of the electoral quotient, i.e. the minimum number of votes that a candidate must win in order to be elected. This quotient corresponds to the number of all of the votes cast divided by the number of seats available (three, four or five depending on the constituency) plus one. The surplus votes won are then divided up between the second choice candidates.
The Irish are very much attached to this complicated system of voting that they share with two other countries (Malta and Australia) to the point of refusing its modification on two separate occasions. Since the single transferable vote was written into the Irish Constitution in 1937 its modification or abolition can only be accomplished by referendum. In 1959 the Irish chose by a narrow majority and then more widely nine years later not to change anything about the way they chose their representatives. The two referenda organised on the initiative of Fianna Fail, who were then in power, suggested the Irish adopt the majority system as in the UK. Although the single transferable voting system enables a faithful representation of the political parties it is sometimes criticised due to the immense competition it creates between candidates in the same party. Hence MPs sometimes complain that this voting method forces them to dedicate a great amount of time to individual requests on the part of their fellow countrymen and prevents them from focussing on political issues of national interest.
The government may comprise up to 15 members. Two of them can be members of the Seanad Eireann (the Upper House); everyone else must be member of the Dail Eireann.
Seven political parties are represented in the Dail Eireann at present:
- Fianna Fail (FF) (Soldiers of Destiny in Gaelic) is Bertie Ahern, the Prime Minister's party. This centre-left party has dominated political life since 1932 and has governed 55 of the last 74 years; it has 80 MPs;
- Fine Gael (FG) (Family of the Irish in Gaelic) is the main opposition party lying on the centre-right of the political scale. Led by Enda Kenny since the departure of Michael Noonan; it has 31 MPs;
- the Labour Party (Lab) a leftwing party whose leader Pat Rabbitte has brought the party more to the centre over the last few months, a move which has not been achieved without the opposition of a number of its members. The Labour Party even signed a joint agreement with the Fine Gael in view of the upcoming elections. The party has 21 MPs;
- the Progressive Democrats (PD) is a centrist party created in 1985 by members of Fianna Fail who were against the leadership of Charles Haughey. Fianna Fail's partner in the present government coalition is led by the present Justice Minister Michael McDowell; it has 8 MPs;
- The Green Party (GP), an ecologist movement led by Trevor Sargent, with 6 MPs;
- Sinn Fein (SF) (Ourselves in Gaelic) is a republican, nationalist party which exists (and takes part in elections) in two States of the European Union: Ireland and the UK. It is led by Gerry Adams with 5 MPs.
- the Socialist Party (SP), a Trotskyite party on the far left; it has one MP.
The Seanad Eireann (the Upper House) has 60 members.
43 are elected by proportional vote according to a single voting system, by five main bodies comprising members of parliament (outgoing senators and the newly elected MPs) and local councillors (county councillors and town councillors) representing the various sectors of society (Culture and Education, Agriculture, Employment, Industry, Trade and finally the Civil Service).
11 are appointed by the Prime Minister and six by graduates (any citizen aged 18 and over who is registered on the electoral rolls and who has a degree) of the National University of Ireland or the University of Dublin (Trinity College).
The Seanad Eireann is traditionally elected 90 days after the Dail Eireann at the latest.
The Head of State, who only has representative power, is elected by universal suffrage for a term of 7 years that can only be renewed once. The present President of the Republic, Mary McAleese, in office since 30th October 1997, and the only candidate standing for the position as Head of State when the deadline for appointments closed during the last presidential election was re-elected without a ballot on 1st October 2004.
The Irish population has risen sharply over the last few years and stands at 4.2 million. However this increase has not been homogeneous over the entire country and although the Constitution stipulates that an MP must represent the same number of voters in each constituency, the electoral law and jurisprudence allow an 8% difference between constituencies. At present the difference is greater: hence the constituency of Dun Laoghaire has one MP for 22,787 voters and West Dublin one MPs for 30,933, the average being 25,512 voters. The constituencies of West Dublin, Meath and Kildare should witness a rise in the number of MPs versus Cork, Donegal and Kerry who should see a decrease.
Ten Years of Government with Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern is a model in terms of longevity as Ireland's leader. Whilst no outgoing government managed to stay in power between 1973 and 1997, the Fianna Fail leader, who became Prime Minister after the general elections on 6th June 1997 (his government was the first since the Second World War to finish its five year term in office) was re-elected to the same post after the elections on 17th May 2002, is after ten years as Head of State standing again for election. To date the longevity record is held by Eamon de Valera believed to be the father of free Ireland who governed from 1932 to 1948. Bertie Ahern has always maintained that he wanted to remain politically active until the age of 60 (his birthday on 11th September 2012).
During the general elections of 17th May 2002, the opposition forces did not pull through to become a true alternative. The only issue in the election was to determine whether Fianna Fail would have the means to govern alone, otherwise who were its partners to be? Five years later the situation has changed and the opposition has gained credibility. On 24th May next two projects for society will be fighting it out and Bertie Ahern's idea whereby a change in government would endanger the economic success of Ireland might not be enough to guarantee him electoral success. For the last few months the continued rise in popularity of Fianna Fail in the polls which matched the decline of Fine Gael seems to have set the pace and although Bertie Ahern is maintaining his lead over Enda Kenny his legendary invincibility seems to have been somewhat diminished. In spite of his immense popularity the Prime Minister seems more vulnerable now than ever before. According to a poll undertaken on 23rd and 24th April by TNS/MRBI which was published on 27th April by the daily The Irish Times, Fianna Fail has lost three points in comparison with February (34%) whilst Fine Gael recorded an increase of five points (31%).
The Prime Minister can boast a particularly positive result with regard to the economy. With 6% GDP growth in 2006, the highest level in four years, the Irish economy is now the most dynamic in the euro zone. Growth is pulled along by household consumption (+6.2%), investments (+3.9%) and the construction industry. It is also supported by immigration. Foreigners represent 10% of the working population. In 2004 Ireland like the UK immediately opened its labour market to citizens from eight Member States who entered the EU on 1st May, receiving over 300,000 workers. Ireland, after Luxembourg, now has the second biggest GNP per capita in Europe (+40% in comparison with the Union). The country also has the largest proportion of entrepreneurs in the EU. Finally the unemployment rate that affected 18% of the working population twenty years ago now lies at 4.3% i.e. the lowest in the EU.
Some black spots persist however: inflation, which is rising lies at 4.5% (as the elections approach the decrease in buying power is of primary concern to the Irish according to the polls), the decrepitude of the country's infrastructures, notably the transport systems, which desperately need renovating or developing and the extremely high price of property. The opposition forces mainly accuse the Prime Minister of not having used Ireland's prosperity to improve public services.
Bertie Ahern can also be proud of the role he has played in the positive developments in the peace process in Northern Ireland: he actively took part in the writing of the so-called "Good Friday" peace agreement signed on 10th April 1998 between the nationalist Catholic and Protestant unionist parties of Northern Ireland, ratified by referendum on 23rd May 1998 by 71% of the inhabitants of the northern part of the island and 85% of the Irish. This agreement temporarily put an end to three decades of violence between the Protestant and Catholic communities of Northern Ireland and then enabled the creation of a government in 1999 rallying the Protestant unionists, loyal to the British crown and the Catholic nationalists, supporters of a united Ireland. This agreement was endangered by the regional elections on 26th November 2003 in Northern Ireland but a new government which was created after the elections on 7th March last will take office in Belfast on 8th May next. To celebrate the agreement between the two Northern communities Bertie Ahern has been invited to London by his British counterpart, Tony Blair on 15th May next. For the first time in history an Irish Prime Minister will speak in the two Houses of British Parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Many political leaders have asked Tony Blair to delay his invitation because of the electoral campaign.
Finally Bertie Ahern, nicknamed "Teflon Taoiseach" because of his ability to resist might well be affected by the accusations launched against him by David McKenna, a journalist at the Irish Times, who published an article on 21st September 2006 in which he revealed that the Prime Minister had received between 50,000 and 100,000 euro when he was Finance Minister and treasurer of Fianna Fial. These facts were revealed just as the Mahon Tribunal is investigating the relationship between Bertie Ahern and Owen O'Callaghan, director of the construction of the Liffe Valley shopping centre (also called Quarryvale) west of Dublin. After having said that he had not asked for this money and that it had been offered to him by his friends, the Prime Minister admitted having received 39,000 Irish pounds (50,000 euro) in two payments in 1993 and 1994 and 8,000 pounds (11,800 euro) during a business dinner in Manchester in 1994. Although the sums are not particularly high in themselves it remains that Bertie Ahern has built his entire career on his probity, notably distancing himself from the previous corruption affairs that affected his predecessors including former Prime Minister (1979-1981, 1982 and 1987-1992) and Fianna Fail leader, Charles Haughey. On 3rd October Bertie Ahern spoke to the Dail Eireann, admitted the truth and apologised. "The confusion created amongst the public by recent revelations has been painful both for me and my family. To the latter and to the Irish people and to this house where I now stand, I present my apologies," he said. On 5th October we learned that the Prime Minister bought his Dublin house from Michael Wall, a business man present at the dinner when Bertie Ahern was "offered" 11,800 euro. A poll published in April revealed that nearly half of the Irish believed that the Prime Minister still had not revealed the entire truth about the accusations against him.
The issues at stake in the general elections and the electoral campaign
Without exception continued reductions in taxes and the development of public services are the two main themes highlighted by all the political parties.
On 24th and 25th March Fianna Fail held its congress in Dublin. 5,000 delegates met to listen to their leader's programme, a speech during which he promised to reduce taxes by a further 4.2 billion euro and to invest in public services. The Fianna Fail hopes to reduce the standard tax rate by two points (from 20% to 18%) and the marginal rate by one point (from 41% to 40%). Amongst the concrete measures put forward by Bertie Ahern are the creation of jobs for 4,000 teachers (estimated at 220 billion euro), 2000 prison guards (240 million euro) and 2000 hospital consultants (320 million euro). Likewise he has promised to invest 300 million euro in public hospitals. Finally 1.6 billion euro will be dedicated to a rise in retirement pensions for these to reach a minimum of 300 euro per week.
Fianna Fail has repeated that it does not want to launch a competition of electoral promises with the opposition forces, preferring to refer to it results and convince the Irish that it will be able to continue to be the guarantor of the country's prosperity over the next five years. With a warning against sacrificing economic success on the altar of political opportunism via electoral promises which take the form of increasing public expenditure, reducing taxes and simultaneously making budgetary profits, Bertie Ahern stands as the Father of the Nation and is against what he calls "auctioneering policies". "We want the Irish economy that we have built to work both for and with the Irish for a good number of years and for unemployment to remain low. We are careful about what we put forward and we assess the costs extremely closely. No one can do anything with regard to healthcare or education or even reduce taxes if a strong economy cannot be maintained," he said. This position is not always easy to maintain just as the opposition is challenging with its own electoral promises.
Fianna Fail presented its electoral programme on 3rd May.
On 31st March and 1st April Fine Gael held its congress, qualified as being "American" and even "Clintonian", since Enda Kenny chose to promote his family and to bring his wife, Fionnuala – former Fianna Fail press attaché and head of the government's information service – on stage at the end of his speech. The Fine Gael leader also spoke of his three children, making Bertie Ahern look like a grandfather whilst he gave himself the image of a working family man. Enda Kenny spoke of all the generations of his family, including his father, also an MP and his grandfather, Jame McGinley, former lighthouse keeper.
The opposition leader denounced the government's action. "They promised to put an end to hospital waiting lists by 2004. They have failed in this. They promised to invest in public services. They have failed in this. They promised that criminals in prison would be guarded better but 3000 prisoners obtained a reduction in their sentence last year. They promised to reduce the number of children per class. They have failed in this," he maintained. "Ours is a great country. But we can do a lot better. And we have been waiting for so long that we cannot wait any longer. We have waited for hospital beds, trolleys, surgical operations, places in schools, prison guards, housing, we have waited in the midst of traffic jams," he added.
"Our priority will be to redeploy fiscal policy towards families," maintained Enda Kenny who believes that "the family is the most important institution in the country." Protecting the economy, renewing public services, notably the healthcare and education sectors, these are the main measures promoted by the opposition party. Enda Kenny is promising to create 2000 jobs in prisons, to provide 2,300 hospital beds, to improve public transport, to fight against insecurity and to reduce taxes. Finally the Fine Gael leader announced that he would create an Immigration Ministry. "The education of our children is being undermined because we have been unable to take on board the increase in immigration. We must find a way of enhancing individual rights and duties, to protect Ireland and to improve our standards of life rather than endanger it. We shall created an Immigration Ministry to develop a system that will be beneficial to the Irish and immigrants," he indicated.
"It is time that a government keeps its word and offers public services people need and deserve. This is why I am suggesting "a Contract for a better Ireland". The Irish know that this government will not achieve in fifteen years what it has failed to do in ten. They know that it will not establish a functional health service, that it will not improve security, they know that it will not spend our money in a sensible way. Its time is over. Consequently people can take their future in hand and vote for a change, vote for Fine Gael and the Labour Party," declared Enda Kenny when the election date was announced.
He called Bertie Ahern to a debate "where ever he wants whenever he wants, either in English or in Irish."
Pat Ribbitte's Labour Party, the Progressive Democrats led by Michael McDowell and Trevor Sargent's Green Party all held their congresses on 24th and 25th February.
Labour, allies of Fine Gael whose campaign motto is "For change," promised to reduce the standard tax rate by two points over the next two years, a measure they have estimated at one billion euro. They have also focussed their programme on the renewal of public services (notably transport and healthcare) and access to property, hoping to encourage a maximum of the Irish and notably the young to become property owners.
The Progressive Democrats, the Fianna Fail's government partner is suggesting a reduction in the highest tax rates over the next five years, a measure estimated at 5.5 billion euro. "Fiscal reform means sharing prosperity with those who are the source of it," declared Michael McDowell. The Progressive Democrats have focussed their programme on improving healthcare services, the fight against crime and insecurity, an increase in pensions and the protection of the environment. The party refers to the results achieved by the present Healthcare Minister Mary Harney (PD) and points to her desire to finish ongoing work in terms of renovating the country's medical services.
Contrary to these parties the Green Party has made no promises to reduce taxes and even plans to increase tax on capital. "The 400 greatest fortunes in this country who earn over 2 million euros per year pay less than 25% in taxes," maintains Trevor Sargent accusing the Fianna Fail in power of having created a taxation system that favours the wealthiest. "The truth is that Fianna Fail will ruin the country if it stays in power," he concluded. The Green Party promises to renew public services, develop alternative energy sources, and to protect the environment better. Although they say they are independent the ecologists are however committed to putting an end to the government led by Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats.
Finally Sinn Fein also promotes the defence of the public services and will fight for free healthcare (the healthcare sector is divided between the State and private companies in Ireland). The nationalist, leftwing party is trying to win over the Labour Party electorate – ie the most vulnerable socio-professional categories. "The unions are starting to understand that Sinn Fein is their party and it can represent them in the political arena," declared MP Sean Crowe who added, "Today if Bertie Ahern, Enda Kenny or anyone else wants to win the elections have to wake up and understand that we are a key element with whom they will have to reckon." The party hopes to take advantage of the positive development in the political situation in Northern Ireland, notably about the party's entry into government. "In the North five of our ministers are now working with the Democratic Ulster Party (DUP) – a Protestant party led by Ian Paisley – and other parties for the return of government on 8th May. We are also ready to govern in the South," stressed MP Pat Doherty.
It is difficult to discern which parties Fianna Fail or Fine Gael will join forces with to form the next government but no one imagines that either of these "major" parties will win an absolute majority in the Dail Eireann.
Bertie Ahern, who has on many occasions said that he would like to continue his work with the Progressive Democrats, says he is open to all alliance suggestions except notably with Sinn Fein.
Enda Kenny, who has also excluded any coalition with Sinn Fein says that he would prefer the Green Party to the Progressive Democrats if Fine Gael and the Labour Party need a third partner. At the end of 2005 Fine Gael made an alliance with the Labour Party with whom it signed a joint agreement in view of the general elections. The agreement between the two parties was the source of opposition on the part of some members of the Labour Party.
After having said it did not want to govern with the Green Party, Fine Gael or the Labour Party – "the Progressive Democrat Party will not form a coalition with Fine Gael-Labour Party-Green Party since each has indicated separately that it wanted to put an end to the Progressive Democrats. It would mean cheating on our electorate and signing up for the end of our party if we were to work with them," stressed Michael McDowell -, the Progressive Democrat leader distanced himself from Fianna Fail on 25th March and is planning his participation in a government led by Fine Gael.
The Green Party says that it is prepared to govern but refuses to say anything about its possible participation in any coalition before the elections. Trevor Sargent has said that he will resign as head of the party if the ecologists enter a government led by Fianna Fail. He has also said that his party was not against Sinn Fein. "Sinn Fein has changed and given up violence in exchange for law and order. The reasons for throwing it out have now ceased to exist," he maintained.
The great number of possible coalitions shows how uncertain the outcome of the elections is and how difficult the battle will be. Although a number of points of agreement exist between the various parties and although Ireland's policy will not really change whatever the party rules the country in the future it does remain that the entry into government on the part of the Labour Party and/or the Green Party would herald a slight swing to the left in Ireland.
Just a month before the election all the polls declare that the two main political parties are running neck and neck. The latest poll undertaken on 23rd and 24th April by TNS/MRBI and which was published on 27th April by the daily Irish Times reveals that 36% of the Irish would support a Fine Gael/Labour Party led government whilst 35% would prefer a coalition between Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrat Party. Fianna Fail is still ahead with regard to voting intentions (34%), followed by Fine Gael (31%). However the Labour Party and Sinn Fein are due to win 10% each whilst the Progressive Democrat Party is losing ground with only 3% of the voting intentions.
Reminder of the General Election Results 17th May 2002
Participation rate: 63%
Source: Agence France Presse