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Ireland's growing discontent

THE RESULTS of the Irish general election could be greeted by some philosophical Irish voters with the refrain that the more things change the more they stay the same. Certainly, there has been little change at the top in Irish politics. Bertie Ahern's ruling Fianna Fil party gained 80 seats, three short of an overall majority, and looks likely to continue in government with a repetition of the outgoing FF/Progressive Democrats coalition.

But there were significant developments which point to a big change in the future shape of politics in Ireland. Parties seen as outside the political establishment, like the Socialist Party, Green Party and Sinn Fin, along with independents, had the biggest increases in their vote. This is a sign of the growing disillusionment with the sleazy Irish political establishment. These groups combined got 21% of the vote and 25 TDs (MPs).

The Socialist Party (affiliated to the international socialist organisation, the CWI) scored spectacular successes. Joe Higgins was re-elected as a TD in Dublin West, coming second out of the constituency's three elected candidates with an increased vote. He got 6,442 first preference votes, 21.5%, which transfers raised to 7,853 on the fourth count, when he was elected.

Socialist Party councillor Clare Daly, standing in Dublin North, got 5,501 first-preference votes (12.5%) on a 60.3% turnout - a higher first preference vote than Labour leader Ruairi Quinn. This went up to 6,772 votes when she was eliminated on count eight. Clare was in third position all the way through until the final count and beat a former Fine Gael (the main opposition party) deputy leader, Nora Owen.

In the other seats where Socialist Party members stood, Lisa Maher in Dublin South got 1,063 votes (2.1%); Mick Murphy in Dublin South-West got 954 votes (2.6%); and Mick Barry in Cork North Central got 936 votes (2.1%). In total, across five seats the Socialist Party got 14,896 votes - an average of nearly 3,000 per seat.

Fine Gael and Labour suffered setbacks. Fine Gael suffered an electoral disaster, with its share of the vote falling by 5.4%, despite pointing out how shallow the nature of Fianna Fil's Celtic Tiger is. Fine Gael is just as tainted with the stench of corruption that lingers over Ireland's establishment parties, and its economic programme hardly differed from that of Fianna Fil. So for many voters it was a case of 'better the devil you know' in the form of Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fil. Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan resigned soon after the election.

Labour, although making some gains, partly by putting on a more 'left' face, also did less well than they expected and their national vote dropped by 2%.

Despite the alleged successes of the Celtic Tiger, the election result was not a ringing endorsement of Ahern and Fianna Fil or for any of the establishment parties. The turnout at the election at 63% was down from 1997, despite the introduction of longer opening hours for polling booths and electronic voting in three constituencies.

Some of the fall in turnout can be explained by the appalling rainstorms that lasted throughout election day. More generally, the lower turnout reflects a trend apparent in other countries, that voters are increasingly alienated from corrupt, sleazy establishment parties.

The vote for those perceived as outside the establishment, however, shows another process at work. There is a layer of voters (especially among the working class) looking for a real alternative.

Also a rise in tactical voting saw an unexpected increase in votes and TDs for the Progressive Democrats, showing that, regardless of the economic boom and alleged charisma of Ahern (not difficult given the character of the opposition), voters were wary of granting Fianna Fil an outright majority for the first time in 25 years.

Sinn Fin is regarded, at least by its voters, as being outside of the Irish political establishment and its success in picking up five TDs reflects this. It is also reported to be the best financed political organisation in Europe. The abundance of glossy material Sinn Fin gave out, and the expensive stunts it carried out, including the hiring of planes with huge display banners in Dublin West two days before the election, showed that it is awash with funds.

During the election Sinn Fin played different tunes in different constituencies, more radical in working-class areas than rural areas. It opportunistically latched on to the anti-bin charges campaign, although they have done very little work on the ground where the Socialist Party has played a leading role.

Sinn Fin's true intent was brought out as it made increasingly loud overtures about being involved in some form of right-wing coalition government. Although it is unlikely at this stage that it will be taken in to a coalition, it is still advancing the idea even after the election. If Sinn Fin is left in opposition, however, given the weakness of the Fine Gael and Labour opposition to Fianna Fil, then it is possible that it could make bigger gains at the next election.

The success of the so-called fringe parties, against the backdrop of a continuing economic boom, can also be explained by the character of the Celtic Tiger, which is now more of a stooping tiger than a crouching one. The character of the boom has brought with it an increase in class antagonism against corrupt establishment politicians and the chaos in transport, housing, education and other aspects of the deteriorating infrastructure, caused by the lop-sided economic growth.

Irish gross national product rose from 41.9 billion in 1994 to 86 billion in 2000. This represented a leap from 60% of the European average in 1989 to 114% in 1999. But just one day after the election a report from the head of economic research at the Ulster Bank warned of a 5 billion (about 3.3bn) black hole in government accounts, meaning that tax rises and public spending cuts are likely.

This is despite the fact that Irish spending on health, education, public housing and transport is all below the EU average. There was enormous anger at how, just a few years ago, 90% of a 5 billion public spending surplus (for a population of just under four million) was handed out in tax cuts - mainly to the wealthy and corrupt - and only 10% went to public expenditure.

Homelessness has doubled in the last five years alone and the gap between the rich and poor has widened by 242 a week (about 160). Ireland also has the lowest number of acute hospital beds and GP doctors per head of the population in Europe.

The Celtic Tiger has also brought huge changes in Ireland's working class, which now has a more dynamic and concentrated character, with large amounts of women being taken in to the workforce. One-third of the nation's population now lives in the Dublin area which is now experiencing increasing health, traffic, housing and education chaos. There is a higher confidence about challenging the bosses and the establishment.

It is clear from the election that this layer is also looking for a political alternative to the discredited establishment parties. The Irish press played up Sinn Fin and the Green Party gains, virtually blacking out the Socialist Party, but it is the Socialist Party that is laying the most solid base on the ground for future growth.

The campaigning work being done against the hated bin tax and the reputation now established by the Socialist Party and its representatives, especially Joe Higgins and Clare Daly, will see the Socialist Party poised to make more spectacular gains in future elections when the lop-sided economic growth of the Celtic Tiger finally expires.

Ken Smith


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