24/05/2007 - D-7
Nearly 3.5 million Irish are being called to ballot on 24th May next to renew the 165 members of the Dail Eireann, the Lower House in Parliament (the Oireachtas).
466 candidates are running in this election including 106 for Fianna Fail (FF) Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach's party, 91 for Fine Gael (FG), the main opposition party led by Enda Kenny, 50 for the Labour Party (Lab) led by Pat Rabbitte, 43 for the Progressive Democrat Party (PD) led by the present Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, 30 for the Greens (GP) led by Trevor Sargent and 40 for Sinn Fein (SF) led by Gerry Adams.
106 candidates are standing under various banners such as those of the Workers' Party (WP), the Christian Solidarity Party (CSP) and the Socialist Party (SP) and even some independents. The constituencies of Laois-Offaly and Dublin Centre-South are those which attracted the greatest number of candidates.
19 outgoing MPs are not standing again including former international rugby player Jim Glennon (FF) MP for Dublin North in 2002 and Seamus Pattison (Lab) of Carlow-Kilkenny aged 71, who has had a seat in the Dail Eireann for the last 46 years. The Green Party hopes to win the constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny – and the success of their candidate Mary White would be their first victory in a rural constituency.
In all the electoral campaign is due to cost the State 5 million euro. Fianna Fail is planning to spend 3.8 million euro, Fine Gael, 3.4 million, Labour Party, 1.8 million, the Progressive Democrat Party 1.1 million and the Green Party 1.5 million. Sinn Fein has not published its estimated campaign costs but has established a 1.5 million euro limit on its expenditure. The government decided to increase candidates' expenditure by 20% in the general elections. Hence this is now limited to 30,150 euro per candidate in a 3 seat constituency, 37,650 for those with four seats and 45,200 for constituencies with 5 seats.
The choice of a Thursday as Election Day is still an issue, since the opposition parties say that 70,000 of the country's students, who are usually doing exams at this time of year, would find it difficult to go to their constituency. "Ireland has the greatest number of young people in the EU, 37% of our population is under 25, versus 25% in other parts of the EU," said Jonathan Hoare, Fine Gael's elections director who added, "this country has 650,000 young people aged 19 to 28 and we have to ensure that each of them receives encouragement to vote and that we offer them the opportunity of going to ballot".
Fianna Fail which has been constantly falling behind in the polls for the last few months is counting on the Irish fear of seeing the recession of the 1980's return if the opposition forces win the general elections on 24th May. "Each time they (the opposition parties) have been in power unemployment and property prices have increased. When I took over office unemployment affected 11% of the working population and the country was in recession. Of course I haven't solved all of the problems but I have helped the country recover nevertheless," repeats Prime Minister Bertie Ahern who can indeed be proud of his economic results: 6% GDP growth rate in 2006, i.e. the highest rate in four years and an unemployment level of 4.3%. The Irish economy is the most dynamic in the euro zone.
Finance Minister Brian Cowen (FF) warned the Irish about Fine Gael's possible return to power along with its ally the Labour Party. He recalled that his party had created half a million jobs over the last ten years and maintained that it would continue down this path. Fianna Fail has indeed promised to create 250,000 new jobs if it wins along with an increase in investments in research and development which should be to the benefit of healthcare sectors, the environment and fisheries. "Since Ireland reduced company tax to 12.5% we have witnessed the creation of half a million jobs in the country one out of four of which have been created by Irish investments," maintained Brian Cowen. Company and Employment Minister Michael Martin (FF) criticised the Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny who did not mention employment once in his speech during his party's congress on 31st March and 1st April last when he put forward his "Contract for a better Ireland".
Bertie Ahern also promised that he would increase investments in border regions with Northern Ireland and that he would promote the economy of Ireland as a whole and that he would tackle the "scourge of sectarianism".
As promised on 11th May last the Prime Minister again spoke of the 30,000 pounds he is accused of having received in cash from Michael Wall, a business man based in the UK whilst he was Finance Minister and Treasurer of Fianna Fail – he also spoke of the purchase of his Dublin home from the same person. When on 3rd October 2006 he was invited to explain the various transfers of money he received in the 1990's Bertie Ahern forgot to declare the 8,000 pounds (11,800 euro) offered by Michael Wall during a business dinner in Manchester in 1994 as well as the purchase of the house. On 11th May the Taoiseach publicly denied having received this some of money. Although according to the polls voters are more interested in the healthcare system, education and housing problems than in the money received by the Prime Minister it remains that in a survey undertaken by TNS-MRBI, published on 11th May by the daily "The Irish Times", nearly half of those interviewed believe that these issues comprise a major stake in the general elections on 24th May next.
Enda Kenny, the main opposition leader, Fine Gael, says that he is confident in his party's victory on 24th May next. The latter which is allied to the Labour Party in this election will win a sufficient number of votes to govern Ireland for the next five years even if the support of the Green Party might prove necessary to achieve this. "The Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat Party government coalition is tired and is riding on the achievements of its first term in office," said Enda Kenny who then added, "I think the man who is the present Taoiseach achieved the greater part of his work during his first mandate. Today the end is nigh." Fine Gael whose programme focuses on 14 priorities such as the reduction of taxes on households with only one wage, the opening of 2,300 new hospital beds, the creation of 2000 prison guard jobs, and even the reduction on property tax admitted that he might have to review his promises if economic growth was not as strong as it is now.
The two main political parties do agree at least on one point. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have both re-iterated their refusal to open a government coalition to the nationalist movement. Communications Minister Noel Dempsey (FF) said that his party preferred to join the ranks of the opposition rather than govern with Sinn Fein. The Progressive Democrat Party shares the same opinion. "A vote for Sinn Fein is a vote against prosperity," indicated its leader Michael McDowell, who added a remark aimed at the electorate "You should ask yourselves what Gerry Adams is offering you: nothing, apart form the loss of your job." Likewise the spokesperson for environmental issues from the Labour Party, Eamon Gilmore recently declared: "Under no circumstances could the Labour Party enter government with Sinn Fein. We have no clear view of the economic policies that this party is putting forward and listening to Gerry Adams over the last few days I am even sure that he knows anything about it himself."
The nationalist party recorded a rise in popularity in the polls notably after its successes in Northern Ireland. On 8th May last the nationalist Catholic party, a supporter of a united Ireland did enter government in Belfast where it governs with the Democratic Ulster Party (DUP) which is loyal to the British crown. "We govern in the North, and now we want to govern in the South," declared its leader, Gerry Adams on 3rd May last. Recalling that Sinn Fein is the "party for all of Ireland"' he maintained that if he came to government his party would work towards the reunification of the island.
On 17th May Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny met for a TV debate hosted by Miriam O'Callaghan on RTE. The two men argued fiercely over the healthcare system, security issues, and the state of the Irish economy. The Taoiseach repeated that he had transformed the Irish economy over the last ten years providing 600,000 people with work. "We have built a more prosperous nation, a more peaceful and confident one, now more than ever. I know that your lives and the country's future are the more important than my political career", he declared. Enda Kenny rejected comments' suggesting that he was too inexperienced to become the head of government. The opposition leader refused to be led into talking about the 8,000 pounds the Prime Minister was supposed to have received. "It is not up to me to judge anyone. I do not doubt Bertie Ahern's integrity", he indicated. After the meeting the two camps claimed they were the victors of the encounter.
On 16th May another debated hosted by Mark Little brought Michael McDowell, Trevor Sargent, Pat Rabbitte and Gerry Adams together on RTE. The Progressive Democrat leader caused difficulties for the Sinn Fein leader on several occasions, for example when he made ironic comments about his so-called modest way of life. Gerry Adams showed his lack of knowledge of economic issues, notably accusing the Labour Party of wanting to privatise the healthcare system. Pat Rabbitte was able to show his desire to protect the poorest who are the most badly affected by problems of insecurity. The Green Party leader however did not succeed in finding the means to promote environmental themes.
According to the polls undertaken by Milliard Brown/IMS and published by the Irish Independent on 15th March last the future of the healthcare system is the major stake in the general elections on 24th May for most of the electorate (43% of those interviewed versus 36% in April). 40% of those interviewed would trust a Fine Gael-Labour Party government to improve healthcare services against 37% who would prefer a Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat coalition. Nurses are and have been for the past few months at the heart of social news. On 1st March last 40,000 of them marched in the street to ask for a 10% pay rise, a 35 hour weeks and better working conditions. Nurses downed tools for three hours on 16th May. According to Healthcare Minister Mary Harney (PD) the 35 hour week was an impossible request, since the government did not have the necessary financial means to take on more nurses. She suggests giving them greater responsibilities in carrying out their profession. A solution seems to be emerging however in this conflict and the unions might accept a 37.5 hour week by June 2008.
With an 18% statement rate far behind the future of the healthcare system, security is the second subject mentioned in the poll published by the Irish Independent.
The most recent poll by Milliard Brown/IMS and published on 15th May credits Fianna Fail led by Prime Minister Bertie Ahern with 35% of the voting intentions. Fine Gael is due to win 26% of the vote and its ally the Labour Party, 13%. Sinn Fein is due to come fourth with 10% of the vote followed by the Green Party (5%) and the Progressive Democrats Party with 3%. Finally the independent candidates are due to win 8% of the vote. The present government coalition (Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat Party) would therefore be beaten by one point by Fine Gael and the Labour Party 39% to 38%. However if the Green Party joins the opposition ranks, the three parties, Fine Gael, Labour and the Green Party would win 44% of the vote.
Over the last few days a rise in popularity of the Labour Party has been seen. Its leader Pat Rabbitte is forecasting the election of between 12 and 13 MPs more than in 2002. On 17th May last he also declared clearly that his party would not enter a government led by Fianna Fail. The Green Party that intended to double the number of seats it has in the Dail Eireann will find it hard to fulfil its objective. The ecologist party has 6 seats. The Greens still refuse to foresee any government coalition before the election results on 24th May. The attention given to climate problems, the fight against corruption and massive investment in education are Trevor Sargent's three main priorities and which he would like to see acknowledged before his party enter any government. Finally with 3% of the vote the Progressive Democrat Party has no guarantee of any seats (the party has 8 MPs).
Fianna Fail managed to put a halt to its decline in the polls and Prime Minister Bertie Ahern continues to win a high level of positive opinions with regard to his government's activities. However as the Election Day draws closer voting intentions for his government partner, the Progressive Democrats remain low and the two parties in the present coalition have fewer votes than five years ago. The electorate says they want to change which in the end may mean a swing over to Fine Gael. However just one week from the elections nothing is yet settled and the Irish might finally refuse to make a move because of fears for the future and because the differences that exist between the various political parties are only slight.