If the 2011 election is to be remembered as a ‘political revolution’ in Ireland, 2016 will prove to be the counter-revolution. Politics is sometimes described as a bloodsport and in the case of the Irish Labour Party, it nearly ended up like a fox mauled by a pack of hounds. Lifeless, limbless, without any representation in Ireland’s Dáil chamber.
The Labour Party survived… just.
It seems like an eternity ago when 37 Labour TD’s entered the Dáil led by Eamon Gilmore who week in, week out, hammered the Fianna Fáil/Green government whilst in opposition. The electorate was full of hope and optimism. Labour’s 37 TD’s soon became 31 with defections during their time in government and 31 TD’s soon became 7 after this general election.
It is a common misconception that this little island on the periphery of Europe is a bastion of liberalism. Ireland is not. It is a bastion of conservatism. There are only two countries in the EU that have never had a Labour or Labour-led government. They are Latvia and Ireland. The Labour Party has therefore, in its six appearances in government, been the junior party in coalition. Coalition means compromise, and given the promises made by the Labour Party in 2011, compromise comes at a hefty cost.
This is the second election I have experienced in Ireland and like 2011 this was no ordinary election. It was a post-austerity election. Ireland’s electorate were ready to cast judgement and Fine Gael and Labour politicians were unprepared for the democratic grenades being flung every time a ballot box was hauled open and a tally was counted. The general election had a Maya Angelou element about it:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” – Maya Angelou
In the case of Labour ‘betrayal’ is often used to describe how voters feel, particularly with regards to Ireland’s crumbling public services, its homelessness crisis and cutbacks that have disproportionately affected the vulnerable. Labour was seen as the bulwark against harsh austerity however being the junior partner in government and with severe financial constraints little could be done to limit the extent of forced austerity. Promises were broken and essentially Labour took their eye off the ball and in doing so haemorrhaged their core vote.
There is no doubt when Fine Gael and Labour entered government Ireland was on the precipice. Ireland had lost its sovereignty and its budgets were at the behest of the ECB, the IMF and European Commission. For the final two years of government international credibility was restored, sovereignty regained and Ireland has the fastest growing economy in Europe, creating 1000 jobs per week. Compare that to the travails of Greece, Portugal and Spain. Logic would have it that the 2016 election campaign should be about the economy solely.
How wrong they were.
The Election Campaign
“Its Not Just The Economy Stupid” could have been an appropriate slogan for Labour. Remember Labour led from the front to legislate on the X case? Nope, not one mention during the campaign. How about the Same-sex Marriage Referendum? Described by former Labour Leader Eamon Gilmore as the ‘biggest civil rights issue of our time’, united the country and made international headlines. No mention either. Reforms of drug policy? Patronage of our schools? Restoring the minimum wage on entering government and raising it again? You would have done well to find this plastered on placards around the country. Labour failed to forge a separate identity from Fine Gael during the election campaign. The two became intertwined.
Instead Labour had a presidential campaign focusing solely on Joan Burton. She did little to impress during debates and Labour missed contributions from its big bruisers, Howlin, Gilmore, Rabbitte and Quinn.
By focusing solely on Ireland’s Dublin centred economic recovery Fine Gael and Labour’s election slogan was lost in translation… “Keep The Recovery Going”. If anything it showed just how out of touch the government were. They should have heeded advice from the Irish President Michael D Higgins, who stated in 2013:
“Many of our citizens regard the response to the crisis as disparate, sometimes delayed, not equal to the urgency of the task and showing insufficient solidarity. They feel that the economic narrative of recent years has been driven by dry technical concerns; for example, by calculations geared primarily by a consideration of the impact on speculative markets, rather than by sufficient compassion and empathy” – Michael D Higgins
The Irish electorate have firmly spoken. With Labour achieving only 6.6% of the vote share it remains to be seen when Labour will again be in a position to play a constructive part in another government in the near future.