by Frank Schnittger
Wed May 29th, 2019 at 11:57:40 PM EST
Counting in the Irish European Elections has been completed although there is a re-count in Ireland South where only 327 votes separate the final two candidates with almost 100,000 votes apiece (scroll right to view all the count totals up to count 18). Overall the election is a triumph for the Greens and Fine Gael (EPP) who increased their share of the first preference vote at the expense of Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail (ALDE).
In Northern Ireland a surge in the centrist and non-sectarian Alliance Party vote meant that they gained a seat at the expense of the Official Unionist Party. Ireland doesn't seem to be following the European trend towards fragmentation of the party system and a growth (in some countries) of the far right.
There is still some uncertainty regarding the outcome of the Ireland South vote depending on the result of the re-count and the re-distribution of the losing (6th. place) candidate's votes as this will determine who finishes 3rd. 4th. and 5th. The 5th. placed candidate will only be able to take their seat if/when Brexit happens and Ireland's allocation of seats is increased. For the purposes of this analysis I am assuming that the candidates currently in 3rd., 4th. and 5th. place will retain those places after the re-count and re-distribution, although it is quite possible that the Greens will claim 4th. place from Fine Gael and thus gain the last automatic seat.
The Trend in the Irish Local elections is somewhat different with both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail increasing their share of the first preference votes and seats. However the major winners are the Greens and the new Social Democratic party with Sinn Fein and Solidarity People before Profit the major losers - between them losing over half their seats. Again, it can be argued that this represents a consolidation of the centre left and right at the expense of more left wing or nationalist parties.
However, as is always the case in Ireland, the reality is much more complex, with a variety of local, regional, personality, policy and inter-party issues at play. Fine Gael has been rewarded for its perceived strong performance on Brexit and the selection of some strong candidates. The Greens have finally been forgiven for their role as a minority coalition partner in the disastrous 2007-11 Fianna Fail led government which presided over the economic and banking crash in Ireland. Fianna Fail has been slowly rehabilitating itself by building on its strong organisational base at local level.
Sinn Fein has been punished for its failure to restore the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland set up under the Good Friday Agreement following various disagreements with the DUP. It's policy of abstentionism in Westminster has also meant it has been unable to exert much influence on Brexit, and given the DUP a free run at representing "the voice of Ulster" in British media and politics when in fact it represents only a little over 20% of the Northern Ireland vote. Sinn Fein has also been hit by allegations of bullying and quite a few resignations and splits on issues such as marriage equality and abortion.
The Alliance Party's triumph is a first for centre ground non-sectarian politics, although it can be argued that John Hume's SDLP also occupied that space back in his day. The non-sectarian vote has been increasing slowly over the years, but in this case it was boosted by the popularity of the Alliance Party's candidate and Leader, Naomi Long, and the retirement of the Ulster Unionist Party incumbent, Jim Nicholson. It also sends a strong message to Westminster that a large majority of Northern Ireland voters are against Brexit with the Alliance Party very much aligned with the Lib Dems on that issue. With Sinn Fein also against Brexit, that means two out of Northern Ireland's three MEPs are staunch Remainers.
Brexit has also played a key role in Fine Gael's success in the European Elections, a success that was not matched by their performance in the local elections where more local issues tend to predominate. In contrast, the Labour party remains in the doldrums, stuck on 3.1% in the European elections and 5.7% in the local elections. Not so long ago - in 2011 - it could command up to 20% of the vote. It has never recovered from its involvement as the junior coalition partner in the post crash government from 2011 to 2016 which introduced austerity and regressive taxation measures.
The Confidence and Supply arrangement by which Fianna Fail are keeping a minority Fine Gael government in power is due to end after the next budget in the autumn. By then it is also hoped that the Brexit issue will have been resolved leading to much greater clarity over the policy options available to an Irish Government in the future. An Taoiseach, Leo Varadker, will be hoping that the next general election will be fought on Brexit related and European issues as Fine Gael has done much better in the European as opposed to the local elections.
If Fine Gael doesn't do a much better job of addressing public housing and healthcare issues in the meantime, we could yet see a very decisive swing to the left in Irish politics, despite the current very rude health of the Irish Economy, with GNP growth still at around 5% p.a. and unemployment now down to less than 5%.
Ireland Unemployment Rate
A hard Brexit would soon put an end to that downward trend and rural areas, in particular, would be very hard hit by tariffs of up to 50% on beef and agri-food products. Any attempt to impose customs controls at the Border would destabilise Irish politics very quickly and any government attempting to do so would quickly fall. We could be witnessing the calm before the storm at the moment and the relative peace and prosperity of recent years could soon be a distant memory.