Fine Gael tops in the Irish general election but the next government might be difficult to form

Elections in Europe

Corinne Deloy


1 March 2016

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Deloy Corinne

Corinne Deloy

Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).

During the general election that took place on 26th February in Ireland, Fine Gael (DG (the Clan of the Gaels), the party of outgoing Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny, won 25.52% of the vote and took 50 seats.

However one government partner, Labour, led by Joan Burton, Deputy Prime Minister (Tanaist) and Social Protection Minister only won 6.9% and 7 seats.

Renua Ireland, a right wing party led by Lucinda Creighton, former Fine Gael member won 2.81% and no seats.

Fianna Fail (FF) (Soldiers of Destiny), a right wing party led by Micheal Martin, is rising from its ashes and came second behind Fine Gael winning 24.3% of the vote and 44 seats, ie more than forecast by the polls. The party seems to have succeeded in attracting part of the Labour electorate which was disappointed by the latter's work in government.

Sinn Fein (SF) (Ourselves), a far left nationalist party led by Gerry Adams won the highest score in its history: 13.8% of the vote and 23 seats. Undoubtedly the party has suffered due to the result of far left parties such as the Alliance against Austerity-the People before Profits (AAA-PBP) which won 3.9% of the vote and six seats and also the Social Democrats, a party founded in 2015 by three independent MPs Stephen Donnelly, Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shortall, which won 3% of the vote and three seats and the Green Party, which won 2.72% and 2 seats.

Finally the independent alliance (IA) won 4.2% of the vote andsix seats but the independent candidates did especially well winning 13% and 17 seats. A result that one might analyse as a rejection of the political system.

This is how fragmented the Irish electorate has become since the financial and economic crisis in 2008. Between 1930 and 2007 Fianna Fail and Fine Gael dominated the country's political landscape, which they governed alternately. During the previous general elections, on 25th February 2011, Fianna Fail achieved the lowest result in its history (17.5% of the vote).

"2016 might be that of an electoral earthquake in Ireland due to the emergence of small parties and the presence of many independents," indicated Muiris Mac Cartaigh, lecturer in Political Science at the Queens University Belfast prior to the election.

Turnout fell by five points in comparison with the general elections of 25th February 2011 and lay at 65.2%.

"It is an extremely disappointing day for the government," declared Fine Gael Secretary General Tim Curran. "Although the exit polls are correct we are a long way off being able to form a government," he added. "I would like to think that it will be possible to form a government that can face the many challenges that lie ahead," indicated outgoing Prime Minister Enda Kenny. This might be difficult to do however since the outgoing Taoiseach will having to bring various personalities together, who have often been elected in terms of their opposition to the outgoing government.

The Irish have therefore sanctioned the policy undertaken by the outgoing government, which campaigned on its socio-economic result and stood as the guarantor of the stability necessary to complete ongoing work. Economic recovery does not seem to have been perceived by all, and many Irish citizens have suffered from the policy undertaken by the government (cuts in the number of civil servants by 12% between 2008 and 2015, a 20% contraction in wages, reductions in social benefits, increases in VAT and taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, the creation of a water tax). Moreover public services are still inadequate and the housing crisis is still of concern (there are an estimated 700 families living in hostels and hotels and some 130,000 are waiting to be housed), jobs are precarious and wages low. 16% of Irish workers are living below the poverty line.

"People do not compare their present living standard with that of 2011 when the Fine Gael and Labour Party coalition entered office, but to their life prior to the crisis," indicated John O'Hagan, Professor in Economy at Trinity College.

Could Enda Kenny become the first Taoiseach from Fine Gael to be re-elected as he would like it? We cannot be sure of this. With 25.52% of the vote his party won its third lowest result since 1948. This result is an impediment to the formation of a stable majority and of a government team. "With 47 or 50 seats, Fine Gael will not have enough MPs with the small parties to achieve the 80 he needs for an absolute majority in the Dail Eireann," indicated Michael Marsh, professor at Trinity College Dublin. But what are the other initiatives? The other parties have not won.

There are three possible options:

- The re-election of the outgoing government comprising Fine Gael, the Labour Party and widened to independents and the "small parties";

- The formation of a "grand coalition" between the two rival parties, which have alternately governed Ireland since1932, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail;

- And finally the organisation of another general election.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny totally ruled out the idea of any grand coalition just days before the election, accusing Fianna Fail of having "allowed the country's economy to fall into ruin" at the end of the 2000's. Micheal Martin, Fianna Fail's leader ruled out any alliance with Fine Gael.

The two main Irish parties are both close (regarding ideology and programme) and yet have been rivals since the civil war of 1922-1923. In addition to this they might hesitate since their alliance would make Sinn Fein the country's main opposition party. Its leader, Gerry Adams, has already stressed that a coalition like this would comprise the "most conservative" government that Ireland has ever had.

Negotiations to form the next Irish government promise therefore to be long. The Celtic republic is now in a similar position to that of Spain, which, more than two months after the election, has still not managed to appoint a Prime Minister,.

"We could be without a government for a long time because the present coalition cannot return to office with this result," indicated Eoin O'Malley, a political analyst from Dublin City University. "I believe that we shall have either a Fine-Gael-Fianna Fail coalition which is highly unlikely or new elections," he concluded. Adrian Kavanagh, a professor at Maynooth University declared "the option which we seem to have is a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition since the gap between the two parties is much less than forecast, which places them on an equal footing."

The parties have until 10th March ie two weeks, to form the next Irish government, the date of parliament's return to session.

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