Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

A long journey lies ahead as all roads in Ireland turn Left

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny attends his first parliamentary party meeting at the Shelborne Hotel in Dublin

That Taoiseach-elect Enda Kenny was on the brink of being fired as leader of his Fine Gael party only eight months ago hardly inspires confidence in the Republic to recover swiftly from a crippling recession.

Kenny has been belatedly praised for turning around the fortunes of his party, but his 'success' is as much down to the failure of Brian Cowen and Fianna Fail as it is to any great bolt of wisdom he has revealed to an exasperated southern electorate.

New UK prime ministers often win their position by default and it seems the south is following the same trend. That is to say the public has a habit of growing tired and impatient with one leader and opting for an alternative in the sometimes vain hope that he or she will do better and certainly no worse.

In the Republic's case, the concerns which hung over Enda Kenny not so long ago as a leader are compounded by the fact that he cannot be his own man as Taoiseach. If ever a country needed decisive, single-party government it is the Republic, but Kenny will not able to deliver on his own and needs to compromise his views with others.

We can be fairly assured that Northern Ireland's constitutional position will not figure highly in Dublin for the foreseeable future. We are where we are and they are where they are.

Neither north nor south is in a particularly good place; the former grappling with UK budget cuts, the latter in debt to the eyes.

The big change in political life on this island is that it has moved significantly to the Left and is likely to continue to do so if the recession does not ease.

Whatever Fine Gael's reputation for being a conservative party, the south has moved Left-of-centre, with the large percentage vote cast for Labour and for Sinn Fein's ultra-radical policies on the economy.

These policies are already at the heart of the Stormont Executive, which means that, as of now, the politics of this island have never been so left-of-centre.

First, the Ulster Unionist Party - once known as the Conservative and Unionist Party - gave way to the more working-class voice of the DUP. Now Fianna Fail - the Soldiers of Destiny - has lost its way down south.

The transformation in the political psyche of Ireland has taken place in little more than a generation. The days have gone when Tory leaders from London, such as Sir Alec Douglas Home, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, were feted in Belfast by the ruling Unionist party.

Attempts to revive those links at the last General Election came to nothing, suggesting that Northern Ireland's conservative past can never be resurrected.

The south, aside from ditching Fianna Fail, has also witnessed the decline in influence of another conservative party, the Catholic Church - another seemingly irreversible trend.

The socialist message which Gerry Adams expounded in the south's election was roundly rejected by the other parties, yet Sinn Fein is at the very centre of administering Northern Ireland - even though its hard-Left economic mantra is also totally at odds with the UK Government.

That Sinn Fein is the party with the largest number of votes at the last election in Northern Ireland and has doubled its support in the south is another indicator of the swing on this island towards Left-wing politics.

The island of Ireland is still far from being Europe's offshore Cuba, but on the evidence of political change in Northern Ireland and the Republic in the past decade, it has moved a notch or two in a strongly socialist direction. A questionable by-product of the peace process is that a party with an economic policy shared by no one but itself now has so much influence at the seat of power in Northern Ireland and also can no longer be ignored in the south.

The south faces very uncertain times in the next few months while the Stormont Executive has yet to agree a Budget. The deadlock over the Northern Ireland Budget underlines how economic, rather than constitutional, politics now dominates political decision-making, or rather the inability of parties to take collective decisions. An island beset by centuries of conflict may have buried its constitutional hatchets, but it is finding new political ways to incompatibility.

The politics of the hard Left are stirring in what was once a very conservative country and we should not underestimate where that will take us all in the next few years - not least if Enda Kenny falters.

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