Republic of Ireland's election results herald biggest shake-up in balance of power since the Civil War
They disagree on many policies, but now Enda and Eamon must try to put together a workable coalition
Published 28/02/2011 | 04:44
The Irish Republic is today witnessing its biggest political shake-up since the Civil War of the 1920s, with an election result that carries deep implications for Northern Ireland.
Support for the Republic’s once dominant political party collapsed in Friday’s election, which also saw the re-emergence of Sinn Fein as a significant electoral force, as Gerry Adams topped the poll in Co Louth.
The change comes as the country, our most significant trading partner, struggles to pay back the €85bn mountain of debt left behind by the implosion of the Celtic Tiger economy.
Fine Gael and Labour have emerged from the poll as the country’s two largest parties, both recording the highest votes in their history.
Fianna Fail, the traditional party of government, has been flattened, falling to its lowest-ever representation.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were formed out of opposite sides in the Civil War, which split the IRA over the 1921 treaty with the British. But it was Fianna Fail that eventually rose to become the country’s dominant political force.
The split and bloody conflict led to the creation of Northern Ireland and bitterness lasting to the present day.
Now Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore of Labour will attempt to seal a coalition deal.
The parties are sharply divided on many policy areas, with Fine Gael to the right of Labour, and there will be intense rivalry for cabinet positions.
One division is the Republic’s £500m plan to build roads through Northern Ireland linking Dublin and Donegal. Fine Gael has supported the scheme. Labour is more sceptical.
The prize if they can reach agreement is a government with a massive majority. It would be able to run full term, withstanding backbench pressure, and could push through any programme which it agreed.
One of the government’s first challenges will come at a European summit to negotiate interest rates on the loans and seek agreement to force bond holders who loaned money to Irish banks to accept some losses.
Suddenly all eyes are on Eamon Gilmore, the son of a small farmer from Galway. He is set to share power with his ideological enemies in Fine Gael in a deal not unlike the Lib/Con pact in London, or the working relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein at Stormont.
In theory, Fine Gael could form a government with Fianna Fail, but that is unlikely.
Fianna Fail received the worst drubbing in its history. Returning it to power as a junior partner would be something that could only happen if there was no alternative left.
Sinn Fein could also theoretically give Mr Kenny the seats he needs, but both parties have ruled out helping each other.
It would be an unstable administration with a narrow majority and nothing to unite it.
Labour and Fine Gael have worked together before. They could provide a strong stable government.
That is what Ireland needs when it attempts to renegotiate the terms of its bailout from Europe, something which the new administration must do early on. Fine Gael are traditionally the least nationalistic of major Irish political parties.
Mr Kenny, a fluent Irish
speaker, has said that he will end the language’s status as a compulsory exam subject.
Despite a longstanding interest in Northern Ireland, he has questioned the value of spending money on building roads through Northern Ireland, to link Donegal and Dublin.
Halting the schemes would be welcomed by unionists but resented by Sinn Fein because of the £500m it adds to our roads budget, and the party’s all-Ireland dimension.
Labour leader Gilmore is a canny operator, with considerable personal charisma.
His commitment to a social safety net was set at the age of 14 when his father died, plunging the family into poverty.
The Galwayman's negotiating skills were honed as an official of first the Union of Students in Ireland and later the ITGWU.
He has represented Dun Laoghaire near Dublin since 1989, and was first elected for the Workers’ Party. Years later he led talks to merge Democratic Left, which emerged from the Workers’ Party, with Labour.
Mr Gilmore is a man who knows how to play his political cards effectively.
He will be playing hard ball because in the Republic, coalition has often been the graveyard of smaller parties.
In recent years both the Progressive Democrats and later the Greens were wiped out after propping up Fianna Fail.
Labour has itself suffered electorally after periods in coalition with Fine Gael.
Mr Gilmore is likely to start by demanding tanaiste for himself and at least six of the other 14 cabinet seats for colleagues, a hard sell for Mr Kenny, who risks stretching the loyalty of Fine Gael front benchers if he gives more than four full cabinet posts to another party.
Mr Gilmore must also ringfence areas of policy of importance to Labour voters so that he can show concrete gains from his period in coalition. FG’s plan to cut €250m (£213m) in child benefits is one target.
He will also seek to delay the repayment of the Republic’s loans to minimise the effect on working families, yet will want to get the pain over and improve living standards in time for the next Dail election.It will be a delicate balancing act, but he is famous for his agility.