Ireland is on autopilot

Irish Times says. What does it mean?

Questions:

Do you agree with the statement Ireland is on autoplit? Do you think the current developments are in some way unique and dangerous for Ireland? Or is it more or less a normal situation in democracy when one government is breaking up and another will step into power after the elections?

Answers:

Patrick Maume, Researcher, Centre for Irish Politics, Queen’s University Belfast

The current developments in Ireland are unprecedented in the sense that they mark the breakup of the political system which has existed in Ireland since soon after independence (1922).   Since the late 1920s Irish politics has revolved around the rivalry between the dominant Fianna Fail party and its opponents, in which Fianna Fail has usually had the advantage because it was bigger than all the others and therefore better able to provide a stable government.   Fianna Fail’s supporters have traditionally seen it as incarnating the nation in a special way (and seen its opponents as less than fully Irish), and it showed an ability to inspire fierce loyalty.

At the same time, Fianna Fail has shown remarkable ability to adapt itself to social changes.   In its early years it was associated with economic development through protectionism (which allowed it to draw support both from the business community and from the urban working class who saw it as providing them with employment) and with the declining small farm sector.  In the 1960s, when these policies failed to bring sufficient economic development, it reinvented itself as the party of economic modernisation through free trade, economic planning and Europeanisation.  Its most electorally successful recent leader, Bertie Ahern, called himself a socialist while presiding over a speculative boom driven by construction and financial services (which provided the tax revenue for increased public spending).   It has combined verbal republicanism and irredentism with repression of the militant IRA whenever this was seen as a threat to the stability of the state.  Its founding leader De Valera was seen as a sort of secular priest; Ahern writes for a tabloid newspaper full of scandal and gossip.

Even though Fianna Fail has lost some of its traditional base over time and has not governed on its own for over 20 years, it adapted to coalition politics, where its size always placed it at an advantage in forming governments.

What is unprecedented in the current situation is that the bursting of the economic bubble has led to a slump of unprecedented proportions, leading to the collapse of the banking sector and of the economy as a whole.  At first there was a perception that the Fianna Fail-led coalition had a plan to deal with this; in recent months it has become clear that this plan has failed.

Fianna Fail is now faced with an unprecedented slump in its support; public opinion polls show it is heading for defeat on a scale that it has never witnessed in its history.  The more fluid support which filled the gap as its traditional base declined has deserted it, and the party appears powerless.  The coalition’s majority has been eroded as deputies left the party, and it has been forced into increasing reliance on smaller parties which themselves have lost support as the scale of the economic collapse becomes apparent.   Many Fianna Fail deputies are faced with the prospect of losing their seats, and this has led to increasing discontent with the Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who is widely regarded as an uncouth and incompetent rural bumpkin.  This dissension has now undermined the stability of the government; seeing defeat as inevitable, the green Party has resigned in hope of dissociating themselves from the discredited Fianna Fail Party.

Fianna Fail now faces a defeat on the scale of the Christian Democrats in Italy in the early 1990s, and it is possible that the party may not survive.  It is widely expected that the next government will be a coalition between Fine Gael (the largest opposition party, seen as Christian Democrats and in many ways similar to Fianna Fail) and Labour [i.e. Social Democrats].  Such coalitions have traditionally experienced significant tension over economic policy, and much will depend on the amount of support received by the two parties – but hey will still face a disastrous economic situation with large-scale emigration and unemployment and with further cutbacks in the public finances.

Although the Sinn Fein Party (traditionally the political wing of the IRA, now reinventing itself as respectable after the Northern Ireland ceasefire) and far-left independents such as the new United Left Alliance are expected to gain a protest vote, it is unlikely that this will have much impact.

Ireland’s central problem is not so much the political crisis as the deeper economic crisis which has triggered it; the resolution of this will depend on the wider European and world economic situation, but any new government will still be faced with the problems created by the collapse of the banking system and of the property market, and it remains to be seen how the public mood will develop when the downfall of the current government and the electoral annihilation of Fianna Fail fail to resolve this problem.  The fact remains that a political system in which Fianna Fail are no longer the largest party, and may even cease to exist within a few years (though they may also survive as a small party unlikely ever to regain former levels of support), is an unprecedented development in Irish politics.

Maura Adshead, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration and Head of the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick

With mounting evidence of a lack of confidence in his leadership, marked first by leadership challenge from his own party, then cabinet resignations, culminating in the junior coalition partner’s decision to leave government yesterday, the leader of the Fiana Fail party resigned as party leader on Saturday, but stated that he would continue as Head of Government for the short period until the general election. In this context, it is something of a relief to find that we are on auto-pilot and that the most unpopular leader since the foundation of the state has finally decided to stop trying to implement decisions that the people, the opposition parties, his coalition partners, his party colleagues and now even his government colleagues have all agreed are inappropriate. Until the outcome of a general election, autopilot is probably our best option!

These events are not dangerous for Irish democracy – if anything they signal the end of a dominant party hegemony that has existed since the 1930s and thus the opportunity for democratic renewal. The institutions of government are robust and there is no threat to Irish democracy. The economic crisis is severe and its impacts are universally felt, but the resources are available to ameliorate this situation. This may mean higher taxes, new taxes, or service cutbacks – the choices are not easy or popular – but neither are they unique or dangerous.

It has always been the case that our Taoiseach is leader of the largest party in government. For Brian Cowen to resign as party leader and remain as Taoiseach is unique and unusual, but these are unique and unusual times. The make-up of the next government is already more or less known, only the party proportions are undecided. In this respect, the outcome of this election is the least contentious of any of our elections and changes of government.

Eoin O’Malley, Lecturer in Political Science at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University

It’s on autopilot in the sense that the country is run by the civil  service – there are no new decisions being taken and won’t be for a month at least.

This isn’t a major problem as long as there are no reasons to take major decisions or change direction.

It always happens that during an election campaign, the political leaders do not spend a great deal of time in their offices. There are still ministers who can sign the legal documents, so there’s no crisis. Look for instance at Belgium, where there has been no effective government for long periods but trains still run, people still get paid etc.

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