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The election

Lots of people have been asking me what I thought of Thursday's election. To be honest, since the Irish Times started charging for access (which is years ago now) I have been following Southern politics much less closely than I did. But I am not at all surprised that Bertie is back, or that the PDs were wiped out. Here, for what it is worth, are my poorly-informed and biased comments.

First of all, Bertie is a phenomenon: this brilliant and bitter rant captures it very well:
The constant spotlight on Bertie’s convoluted personal finances would have destroyed a lesser man, but every time Bertie is accused of corruption his poll ratings actually go up.

Bertie has actually managed to out-Dev Dev. The Long Fellow said that he only had to look in his heart to know what the Irish people wanted. By contrast, the Irish people only have to look at Bertie to see what they want. He truly is the man for all seasons.
I was talking to an Irish diplomat earlier in the week, who marvelled at the contrast between the modest and slightly tongue-tied Bertie who you might talk to in the pub, and the European statesman who went to twenty-four other capital cities and rescued the EU from the wreckage left by the Italian presidency through simple persuasion. I've never formally met him, though we had a close encounter a couple of years ago - Anne and I were driving to slovobooks and ephiriel's wedding, and stopped briefly on the Northside to take in supplies; his car had pulled in quite close to ours, presumably for much the same purpose. He saw me staring - I don't see heads of government doing their shopping very often - and gave me an affable, almost conspiratorial wink. Many senior politicians do the blank look or even gaze avoidance. I can understand why he has got where he is.

(Having said that, of course, FF will be down by several seats from their 2002 result, even though their vote has increased; mainly because the bad luck that Fine Gael had last time will not be repeated.)

The wipeout of the PDs came as little surprise to me. It's not just that their electoral form is boom and bust (fourteen in 1987; six in 1989; ten in 1992; four in 1997; eight in 2002; now down to two, which I think means oblivion). It's also that their two key issues (as far as I can tell from here) were badly mishandled by McDowell's leadership. As the blogger I quoted above made clear, Bertie's financial irregularities worried the electorate less than the PDs' response to them. This, after all, was a party founded twenty years ago to take the corruption out of Irish politics in general and Fianna Fail in particular. They have actually spent almost two thirds of that time in government with Fianna Fail, and what do they have to show for it?

Second, McDowell's toughness on law and order issues was possibly counter-productive. The PDs, to be blunt, don't represent people at the sharp end of this particular issue. They do represent people of vaguely liberal inclination, who are alarmed at least as much by tough rhetoric from a supposedly liberal party leader as by the spectre of crime which largely happens to other people. I suspect that that section of their previous vote simply jumped straight to Fine Gael.

That only counts for a quarter of Fine Gael's gain of the vote though, which at almost 5% is the biggest shift for any individual party (FF, Labour, Greens and Shinners all shifted by less than 1% from their 2002 vote). That 5% gain looks like turning into an incredible seat bonus, going up from 30 to 50. We must bear in mind that 2002 was a really really bad election for FG, who had replaced a difficult leader with a disastrous one, with transfers going against them in almost every crucial count; someone said that even their 2002 result should have delivered 40 seats rather than 30 in a normal year. So FG's result is one of consolidation back to the starting point they should have had five years ago. I'm not hugely surprised; their results in the European and local elections in 2004 were very good, but those are second-order elections in the mid-term of the Dail. Fine Gael need voters to take it as read that if you don't like Fianna Fail, your next choice is FG, and they lost that perception in 2002; Kenny has restored it. He will be criticised by some party members for failing to deliver more (and frankly I think he is pretty lightweight) but given the awful starting point I think he didn't do badly.

What Fine Gael have done is to hoover up the votes and seats of the independents, who seem likely to be slashed from 14 to four or five. Similarly in the 1954 election, the fourteen independent TDs who had decided the fate of the two governments of the previous six years were reduced in number to five. I think this reflects the tension between, on the one hand, admiring the verve of the local guy who wants to make a difference for his own people and not be beholden to party hierarchies, and on the other realising that that doesn't in fact deliver as much in terms of government as voting for a party with an actual programme - quite apart from the fact that many Irish politicians who are firm party members seem perfectly well able to deliver on the local pork-barrel politics as well. Parties are still popular in Ireland, and almost 90% of the votes on Thursday were cast for them. This is still lower than in most countries, and independents will always be a visible part of Irish politics, but they are not as central as they would perhaps like to be.

I have no particular view about the performance of Labour or the Greens. Both will now be under pressure to consider going into coalition with FF. If I were them I would stay out and give tactical support to an FF minority administration. Irish voters tend to punish junior coalition partners rather than reward them (with the peculiar exception, now rectified, of the PDs in 1992 and 2002).

I do have a view about Sinn Fein's performance. This was supposed to be the breakthrough election for them. Like a lot of other people, I thought they would probably do it; there were a dozen constituencies where they had a pretty good chance of winning. Instead they appear to have lost out almost (but not quite) as badly as the PDs, going from six seats to three or four. I wonder if this is in part due to a paradoxical blowback from the recent progress in Northern Ireland. Those who see the Shinners as part of the problem rather than part of the solution will certainly have rewarded Bertie with their votes rather than anyone else. And on the other hand it's difficult to see how the hearts of traditional Republicans will have been particularly gladdened by the pictures of Martin McGuinness laughing and cracking jokes with his new boss, Ian Paisley. It was not an event that brought forward the day of a united Ireland in any obvious way.

(Edited to add: hat-tip to Pete Baker over at Slugger for this line attributed by Garret Fitzgerald to a friend of his on Gerry Adams' performance in the leaders' debate, that the people of the Republic "are not yet ready to welcome the intervention of a member of the British parliament in the domestic political affairs of this State!")

It's also important for the North, and the SDLP in particular, because it shows that there can be a plateau for SF's vote; that their rise is not inexorable and can be reversed. My own view is that the two situations are completely different, and there is no domino effect across the border; SF's 7% in the south is much less than their score across the North in any election since they entered politics in 1982. They have now become the natural party of preference for Northern Catholics, and will continue to erode the SDLP's vote until the latter throw in the towel. But Thursday's result probably postpones that day.

OK, thank you for listening!


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 26th, 2007 01:44 pm (UTC)
well thought out. One of the problems i have as an Irish voter who is slightly left of center (except when i am well right!) is that there is no chance that a left wing government will ever get in without either Finna Fail or Fine Gael.

It would in my mind be preferable for both green and labour stay out, let Fianna fail build a coaltion with the 2 PD's and three Independents.

Oh well.
May. 26th, 2007 03:09 pm (UTC)
Good piece. And always nice to get mentioned in dispatches...!
May. 26th, 2007 04:47 pm (UTC)
I'm in just the same position re not following Irish affairs as much as I might, despite spending part of every year there. In my case, I think I am genuinely incapable of - there is not room in my head - for, say, two political administrations, their scandals, characters, betrayals etc., and because England has been home for some time, it is Bliar and co. who most exercise me. Good to have this.
May. 27th, 2007 11:34 am (UTC)
I wonder if with Sinn Féin if seeing them in government up north has led to people down here starting to think of them as a Northern Ireland party? It does sometimes seem like there is an anti-Nornie strain in 26 country Ireland, and maybe SF's northern dominance makes them too identified with "up there" for many people to want to vote about "down here".
May. 28th, 2007 05:16 pm (UTC)
The plateauing of Sinn Féin is one of the more interesting aspects. I think in Border areas the success of the peace process in the North has left nationalists less likely to see supporting Sinn Féin as a burning priority. Mary Lou turned out not to appeal to the voters in Dublin Central as much as expected. Tony Gregory said that if Sinn Féin had stuck with the previous candidate (who almost made it the last time) they probably would have got him in. His grassroots base didn't all vote for Mary Lou. (Note that in general celebrity/parachute candidates did poorly in this election.)

I think Michael McDowell actually was responsible for (a) keeping up criticism of Sinn Fein over the last few years (b) showing up Gerry Adams during the "smaller parties" debate. I didn't see it but apart from McD's zingers he apparently showed a poor grasp of ROI-specific issues.

(I voted this time in McD's constituency - he got a very low preference from me because of the Criminal Justice Act. In the end my vote wouldn't have transferred to anyone after my 1st preference. I wasn't asked to show any ID although technically your polling card is not proof of identity. I suspect that as usual being able to pronounce my own name correctly was sufficient verification.)

I reckon the PDs did lose votes to FG in the manner you suggest. Further, I think they lost out a bit on transfers from FF voters because of McDowell's back-and-forth on Bertie and Mahon tribunal issues.

Independents got squeezed out too. Four of the independents elected in 1997 had a lot of clout because the government depended on their votes. This led to an increase (IIRC) in the number of Independents elected in 2002 but they weren't able to deliver all that much because the government didn't need their votes for anything. Hence only the hardiest of them with the strongest personal bases of support survived.

The two larger parties did exceptionally well in managing their votes to get in the maximum number of candidates. In some constituencies this meant running 3 candidates to get 1 seat whereas in others it meant running 2 for 2 seats, depending on local factors.

Disgruntled opponent on the election of Cyprian Brady on a flood of Bertie's transfers despite tiny first preference vote - "Bertie Ahern could have Lassie as a running mate and it wouldn't matter."
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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