Perhaps the best summary of the elections that were held in Ireland last week (on Friday, Feb. 26) was given by the Prime Minister (or Taoiseach), Enda Kenny, of Castlebar, County Mayo, head of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government. When he was asked about the results on the Irish national television station, RTÉ, he simply said: “Democracy is very exciting, but it is merciless when it clicks in.” Mr. Kenny, a long-standing participant in Irish politics, knows of which he speaks: it was his government that was effectively thrown out of office, once the votes started being counted—only that it wasn’t the outcome he had counted on.
It became clear as the slow and methodical counting of the ballots commenced in each of the country’s 40 constituencies that the coalition government would not be returned to office. With 158 seats up for grabs in the new parliament—or Dáil—it soon became obvious that Mr. Kenny’s government would be unable to get a majority in order to form the next government, with himself ensconced as leader. But it was also clear, too, that none of the opposition parties, principally Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin, would either, which opened up the unpleasant prospect of a coalition government, an idea which is unpalatable to all parties involved. Mr. Kenny’s Fine Gael party vowed it would not join up with its historical enemy, Fianna Fáil, and Fianna Fáil, in turn, vowed the same while Sinn Féin, the political arm of the now defunct IRA, also averred such an arrangement.
The problem for Ireland now is that it has to form a government of some kind for the time being while everything is being sorted out and that means a coalition of some sort, however distasteful that may be to the parties involved. If a coalition were to be formed between the two historical antagonists—Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil—it would effectively end the “Civil War” politics of nearly 100 years ago that gave rise to these particular parties in the first place.
Both parties came into being over the disputed Anglo-Irish peace treaty of 1921 (engineered by Great Britain), which came in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916. The treaty effectively divided Ireland in two: a free, Southern Ireland and a British-controlled Northern Ireland. A referendum was put to a vote by the people; Fine Gael was for implementing the imperfect treaty (which did not give complete freedom or a united Ireland); Fianna Fáil was not in favor—thus the Civil War and its disastrous consequences. It all resulted in actions that had roiled the island in the decades ever since, leading to “The Troubles” of the 1960s-1970s and to the eventual “Good Friday Agreement” of the 1990s, which effectively ended the military conflict between Catholics and Protestants.
Given that history, a coalition between the two historic rivals would be unprecedented and ironic, being that this year is the centenary of the founding of the Irish State. Though both parties vow that it won’t happen, there are those who think it might come to pass. At this juncture, it is anybody’s guess.
Since Ireland’s political system is one of proportional representation and that voting is done—and counted—by hand, it will take a few more days for the tallying to be completed, with some 10 seats or so to be counted (as well as some recounts that have to be conducted, given disputed counts or “spoiled,” i.e., incomplete ballots). What form the government will take is unclear at present, but what is clear is that there might not be one in place for the usual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations whereby government ministers traditionally travel all over the world to embrace Ireland’s far-flung sons and daughters and promote Irish tourism and exports.
There is even talk that the traditional celebrations at the White House in Washington where the President and the Taoiseach exchange pleasantries and shamrock would be cancelled and possibly the Speaker of the House’s Capitol Hill luncheon, as well. And given that the centenary celebration/commemoration is to be held shortly after that, it would not bode well not having a government in place by then.
The Irish Times had an online headline in its Feb. 29 edition. It said: “The 2016 Rising.” That may well be just as accurate a description of what happened as Mr. Kenny’s abject quotation. Britain’s Guardian newspaper, in reviewing the events of the last few days, said that Mr. Kenny and his government had “misread” the temper of the people going into the election season some three weeks ago.
That is true; governments that are voted in in times of emergency vow to “clean up the mess” of that the previous government left behind and often forget that while in the process of “cleaning up,” the methods and the tools they use to do so may end up alienating and angering the electorate that voted them in: voters want things to be corrected but they don’t want to be the ones to bear the burden of others’ malfeasance, as happened for the last five years in Ireland because of the economic/banking crisis.
It is said that Mr. Kenny is a good manager and delegator; but the long-time practitioner of Irish politics (who was himself elected in the 1970s to fill the parliamentary seat his late father Henry once held) forgot a political truism: in order to lead, you must not get too far ahead of those who are supposed to follow. Mr. Kenny has vowed that it is his “responsibility” to decide when and how to from a government; his problem is that he got too far ahead and now he may find himself left behind.
In the coming days and weeks, we will know what form an Irish government will take and we will know in due time whether it can survive. If not, another election will have to be held, perhaps around Easter or by autumn, in September. Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin may have had a presentiment of what lay ahead when he told his election workers before the voting ended to collect their campaign signs immediately after the voting was completed and put them in storage until the next election, which he thinks is surely to be called soon.
Mr. Kenny had counted on the Irish people giving resounding support to what he and his government felt had accomplished in the last five years. He campaigned on the slogan “Keep the Recovery Going.” Such a slogan had the resonance of a flat tire: there was no air left in it and the people decided that they had enough of flowery visions and cheery bonhomie that he offered. Mr. Kenny managed to win re-election his seat in the parliament; so that is safe, not so his premiership. He is known as “The Father of the Dáil,” because he is the longest serving member of the parliament. However, he will need a miracle if he can manage to stay on as head of the government.
The future for Ireland will be as rough as its fabled country roads, and whomever becomes Taoiseach will need sturdy Wellingtons instead of shiny wingtips to negotiate a path ahead through the muck and the mire that is Irish politics. And no more than their American cousins in a rough political year, the Irish might find out that there may well be no end to the dismay, confusion or confounding when it comes to voting in a government.