Fine Gael, currently the largest party in the Irish Dail, swept into power in the 2011 election on an unprecedented scale of popular mandate. With overwhelming support from the national backlash to Brian Cowen’s Fianna Fail / Greens coalition, Enda Kenny took an astounding 76 seats, managing to add a full 50% to their previous representation in the Irish legislature, The national mood at the time was one of absolute despondency. Three years into the worst economic plight the nation had seen since the potato famine, emigration was on the rise, jobs were evaporating, and mortgage arrears were exploding beyond all control. In response to a combination of factors – including allegations of corruption, but overwhelmingly the FF/Green decision to bail out all Irish banks and drive Ireland into the EU/IMF/ECB “troika” bailout programme – the Irish electorate utterly rejected Fianna Fail at the ballot box and so the current coalition was born. So how have they done?
At a national level, the Irish economy is technically growing. The spreadsheets being examined in Berlin are showing a bit more green and a bit less red these days. Admittedly the benefit has been to the few (more on that below), but the fact remains that the Irish economy is – speaking strictly at the national level – recovering. Socially, the government’s biggest win was this year’s marriage equality referendum, though most political analysts would conceded that this referendum only came about as a result of Labour’s influence in cabinet.
National-level economic recovery hasn’t led to any real sense of improvement in the lives of most Irish people. Sure, the numbers and charts say that everything’s great, but that doesn’t seem to mean anyone can afford to buy houses (or in many cases pay their mortgage or rent). There’s still no surfeit of high-quality employment, and while the coalition may brag as much as they can about getting Ireland working, many of the jobs created are merely 50-a-week internships designed to bring down the published unemployment figures. Wealth inequality remains chasmic. The utterly botched handling of the Irish Water setup is at this point The Story Of The Last Five Years™ and needs no further explanation. Politically speaking the exits of Alan Shatter, James Reilly and Lucinda Creighton were all extremely damaging for the party.
Arguably the biggest failure of election promise delivery is Fine Gael’s refusal to shine a light in the darker corners of Irish politics. Given the wave of goodwill Enda Kenny surfed into power on, buoyed in no small part by promises of legislative reform and rejection of corruption, the party’s opaque refusal to answer awkward questions about IBRC, Denis O Brien, Siteserv, and all things ethically questionable has contributed to the general feeling that there’s still absolutely no ideological or moral difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
Enda Kenny has been in the Dail for just under 40 years, after spending a few months as a schoolteacher in Mayo in the 1970s. He stands poised to be the first re-elected Taoiseach in the history of Fine Gael. At varying times throughout those years he’s been called arrogant, racist, and downright dishonest. To his credit though, he managed to escape a leadership challenge from party elder Richard Bruton not so long ago, and all it cost was allowing Phil Hogan absolute autonomy and a cushy Brussels retirement number. Kenny, like all Irish leaders, has spent and will spend his time in office being lampooned for all errors great and small, while his legacy won’t truly be judged until long after his retirement. At this time, he appears to be living proof that in Irish politics, all you really need to do is hang around, keep your head down, and toe the party line for long enough and eventually you’ll be allowed say, do, ignore or steamroll anything or anyone you want once you get your turn in the big chair.All things progressive or creative seem to be anathema to the current Taoiseach. He represents the last of the lumbering dinosaurs of 20th century Irish politics.
While Fine Gael reached a staggering 40% in the polls just three days before the election in 2011, they currently sit at 28%. Does this indicate a return to opposition? A significant loss of seats is almost definitely on the cards, with coat-tail candidates like Michelle Mulherin and Kieran O’Donnell unlikely to surf as easily to safety on the transfers of party heavyweights as they did five years hence. As well as this, Lucinda Creighton’s Renua party has cost a couple of seats mid-term. All things considered though, with a larger selection of parties to divide the opposition than ever before, it’s likely that Fine Gael will return to power as the largest party in the country. That’s not to say however that they’ll enjoy the same level of dominance as last time: quite the opposite. Fine Gael are well aware that a FG/LAB coalition, not propped by a third party or group of independents, is incredibly unlikely. Even the oldest enmity in Irish politics seems a bit cooler in recent months. The established strategy of using junior coalition parties as bullet shields is of course likely to continue in every scenario other than an FG/FF coalition. There’s always the outside possibility too that Kenny is allowed to stagger on as a single-party minority Taoiseach, flimsily supported by FF for as long as it suits them to dangle the axe. One thing is for certain: the winners of the next election will need to gear up for the following one almost as soon as the first is over, and it certainly won’t be five years of tenure. Be it the spring or the winter, Enda’s days are increasingly numbered.
Jimi is the editor-in-chief of soapbox. You can get in touch with him here