Ireland: Sinn Féin strengthens in the lower chamber
Jitka Doležalová 
The Irish general election took place on 26th February 2016. It brought out more fragmentation of the Irish political system. The mainstream parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, failed to win more than 50% of ballots cast. Sinn Fein, a controversial populist party, won 3.9% of the votes more than in the 2011 parliamentary election. Based on these results, Sinn Fein now occupies 23 seats in the lower chamber (i.e. 14,6%) and makes government formation complicated as the mainstream parties refused to form a coalition with Sinn Féin, due to the fact that the party is tainted by its links to the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland. Moreover, the new government will not be able to ignore for the future the fact that there is a significant number of voters who are disappointed and turn to more radical populism.
Figure 1: Results of the Irish parliamentary election (%)
The election was held in an atmosphere of mixed feelings. On the one hand, the Irish economy have bounced back from the trough and experienced a strong recovery in the last two years. On the other hand, the benefits of the economic growth have been unequally redistributed throughout the society. The standards of living of many voters deteriorated during the economic crisis and their scepticism persists for the future. Nevertheless, Fine Gael, the leading centre-right government party, hoped to be re-elected and retaken together with the Labour Party the majority in the lower chamber.
Fine Gael formed coalition a government with the Labour Party after parliamentary election of 2014. Fine Gael won 36.1% of the votes and together with the Labour Party gained 113 out of 166 seats (i.e. 68.1%) in the lower chamber of parliament. It was the first great victory for Fine Gael. Fianna Fáil, a populist centrist party, had governed in Ireland since the foundation of the state in 1922. The party was blamed by voters for the severity of the country´s financial crisis. Fianna Fail won only 17.5% of the votes and lost 51 of its 71 seats in the lower chamber. When the housing and credit bubble burst, the Irish bank system got into serious problems, and required a 64 EUR billion bail-out. The government guaranteed the bank deposit to prevent the bank system from collapsing. Two-thirds of the guarantee fell to the largest Irish bank, the Anglo Irish Bank. GDP declined by 5.6% and general government gross debt increased to 61.8% of GDP in 2009. In November 2010, the Irish government was forced to accept a bail-out programme of 65 EUR billion from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The government had to adopt many austerity measures (i.e. public spending cuts and tax growth). Thanks to these austerity measures, government deficit declined from 32.2% in 2010 to 12.4% in 2011 and further to 8.0% in 2012.
Figure 2: General government gross debt in Ireland in the 2000-2015 period
Source: IMF (2016)
The Irish economy recovered during 2013 and grew by around 5% in the next two years. GDP per capita surpassed its pre-crisis level in 2015. Ireland performed better than almost any other country in Europe. A speedy recovery gave the country a new title: the Celtic Phoenix. The Irish government was able to exit the bail-out programme in December 2013, although its general government gross debt an reached incredible 120.2% of GDP in 2012. It should be noted that Ireland had one of the lowest general government gross debts among the European Union countries in the pre-crisis year (i.e. 23.9% of GDP in 2007). Based on rapid economic growth and government austerity, the debt was reduced to 100.6% in 2015. Unemployment declined by more than one third from its peak of 14.7% in 2011 to 9.6% in 2015. However, employment rate of workers with lower education is still below the pre-crisis level. Employment rate of workers with primary education was 33.9% in 2014 compared to 46.8% in 2008. The number of employees working in crafts, in plants, and elementary occupations decreased by more than 150,000 during the economic crisis.
Figure 3: Growth in real GDP and unemployment rate in Ireland in the 2000-2015 period
Source: IMF (2016)
There were two reasons for the successful recovery of the Irish economy – boost in net exports of goods and services and greater willingness of households to spend. Together with Luxembourg, Ireland was the most open economy in the European Union (198.8% of GDP in 2014). When the financial crisis spilled over into the real economy in Ireland in 2009, exports were reduced by 9.2% and imports by 2.5%. However, Ireland could take advantage of well-educated labour force and a low corporate-tax rate of just 12.5%. Exports exceeded imports in the 2009-2015 period and positive net exports helped to offset the fall in consumption of households. This has changed in the past two years. Domestic demand revived and GDP started to growth as well. At the same time, Irish exports of goods and services have been boosted by a weak euro. The European Central Bank has been loosening monetary policy to expand economies of the euro zone and Ireland has benefited from it. The euro was traded between 15% and 20% lower against the dollar in 2015, compared with the previous year. This advantage was especially supported by large trade exchange between Ireland and the United States.
Economic recovery was expected to help Fine Gael to win the 2016 parliamentary election. The opinion polls showed increasing trends in its electoral support since February 2015. Electoral support approached 30% in the months preceeding the parliamentary election but was still lower than in August 2011 when it reached its peak (i. e. around 40%). Fine Gael hoped to repeat the surprise victory of the Conservative Party in Britain in April 2015. Had Fine Gael been re-elected, Enda Kenny would have become the first Fine Gael leader retaking the position of the prime minister. The results of the parliamentary election were surprising but in the negative sense. It got Ireland into trouble and potential government instability. Fine Gael received only 25.5% of the votes. Its coalition partner, the Labour Party, lost two-thirds of its voters in comparison to previous elections. 6.6% of the votes entitled Labour party to 7 seats in the lower chamber of parliament. Fine Gael and the Labour Party won together 57 out of 158 seats which were insufficient to win the majority in the lower chamber. The second most successful party was Fianna Fáil with 24.3% of the votes. From historical point of view, Fine Gael and Finna Fáil will be reluctant to form a coalition government. There is mutual distrust between these parties which dates back to the civil war of the 1920´s. Besides, Fianna Fáil fears it would lose its electorate support if it agreed to become Fine Gael´s junior coalition partner. Both parties have ruled out any coalition involving the third winning party of the elections, Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin is usually presented as a far-left part. However, this classification is quite problematic. Historically, Sinn Féin included two wings: the left (Officials) and the right (Provisionals), which were not strictly separated in any way. It is true that Sinn Féin has adopted a more pro-worker oriented social and economic policy in the last years. But primarily, it remains a nationalist party which mobilises its voters on the bases of a mixture of ethnic and cultural nationalism. After the collapse of the Irish economy in 2008, Sinn Féin presented the restrictions which were imposed on the government by creditor international organizations as violation of national sovereignty. For this reason political scientists regard Sinn Féin as a populist party. Sinn Féin won 13.8% of the votes in the general election of 2016 and strengthened its position in the parliament. Election results fell behind opinion polls. Sinn Féin received around 25% of the votes in opinion polls at the beginning of 2015 and defeated both mainstream parties. Such a fundamental change in the Irish political system, however, did not become a reality in the parliamentary elections of 2016. The political system has become more fragmented and political stability of Ireland is threatened. Ireland follows Portugal and Spain where results of the parliamentary elections came to a stalemate. This gets Europe into further uncertainty and instability. Mainstream parties are losing their electoral support, new political parties enter the lower chambers of parliaments, and more ballot casts champion far-left, far-right and populist parties.
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