Ireland goes to the polls. Should we expect changes?

Fine Gael is heading toward victory and probably to coalition government with Labour according to polls.

Question?

What impact will this kind of government have on Ireland in your opinion?

Answers:

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

Yes, the most likely government will be a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour (centre right and centre left parties respectively). The new government won’t have a major impact on policy. There will be demands to renegotiate the EU-IMF deal, and burden bank bondholders with some of the debt currently accrued to the tax payer, but how much of this can be achieved is questionable. The new government will have a bit more confidence in dealing with the EU and these issues generally.

In reality there’s not much the Irish government can do to change things for Ireland. Budgetary policy is pretty much determined, and there is a sense that little growth will occur when there is so much deflationary budgeting – money is being taken out of the country all the time.

Timothy White, Professor, Political Science/Sociology, Xavier University

Both Fine Gael and Labour (the parties that have been in opposition) suggest in various ways that they will renegotiate the deal struck between the previous Irish government (led by Fianna Fail) and the EU and IMF.  I believe that these parties know that they will not be able to renegotiate this deal but want to try to promise less pain to the Irish public.  They will have to raise taxes and cut spending just as Fianna Fail did in their initial budget after making this agreement.  The reality is that whoever wins this election, the new Irish government will have to continue on a tight fiscal path of trying to reduce the annual budget deficit.  These spending cuts and tax increases may vary marginally based on who is elected (the ratio of spending cuts and tax increases), but austerity is required to move the Irish government’s budget closer to balance.

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

The likeliest outcome of the election, as you say, is a FG-Labour government.  The major development of the election campaign (and indeed of the months before it) has been that Fine Gael will be stronger within this government, and Labour weaker, than seemed likely six months ago.  Labour decided then to use the slogan “Gilmour for Taoiseach” and to nominate an unusually large number of candidates.  It now seems that this strategy has backfired, both because it was seen as unduly reliant on the party leader’s personal appeal (which turned out to be limited), because it aroused fears that a strong Labour Party would weaken a coalition government and favour “tax and spend” policies (as was the case with the 1982-7 coalition led by Garrett Fitzgerald), and because Labour came under attack from the left (Sinn Fein and far-left groups) as well as the right.

Labour has traditionally secured a significant amount of middle-class support because of its liberalism on social issues; Fine Gael has succeeded in winning back much of this support by raising fears about Labour tax policy.  It has also been widely reported by canvassers that many former Fianna Fail and Labour supporters are switching to Fine Gael in the belief that the stronger FG is the more likely the new government will be able to take the hard decisions required by the economic situation.

There is an outside possibility that Fine Gael might form a government on its own, either by securing an overall majority or with the support of sympathetic Independents.  I suspect, however, that this is unlikely to happen – the numbers may not be there, and  given the desperate economic situation FG may prefer to have a large majority and to make Labour share responsibility, rather than a weak government facing a Labour-led opposition as it makes massive cuts to try to improve the financial situation.  Fg will probably make some concessions to Labour on social policy in return for control of economic policy, and Labour will accept this for the sake of office.

To sum up; the FG surge suggests that Ireland remains basically a centre-right country; Fianna Fail are being routed but their centre-right approach will be continued by Fine Gael – in any case the dreadful financial situation and dependence on the European Central Bank means any government will have limited room for manoeuvre.  The left and the protest parties will hope that continuing economic austerity will produce a stronger protest vote at the next election, but at present the feeling seems to be that Ireland can’t afford protest in its current predicament.

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