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If liberty and equality are chiefly to be found in democracy,
they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.



It's Not the End of the World


Ciarán Irvine


Nor is it the collapse of Irish democracy, the end of 8,000 years of Irish civilisation, a national tragedy/travesty or any of the rest of the endless reams of hysterical guff that has been inflicted on us all over the last couple of days.

Sinn Féin won five (5) seats in the 166-seat 29th Dáil. Five. Fianna Fáil have 16 times that number, and Fine Gael, Labour, the Progressive Democrats and the Greens have all got a higher tally of seats than Sinn Féin. SF are the sixth largest party in Dáil Éireann.

Their votes depend on the idealistic youth, who are notoriously fickle. Many will have careers, children and mortgages come the next election, and angry street-protest politics tend to become unattractive round about the age of 25…most of the rest of SF's vote is the old disaffected unemployed and working poor vote that used to go to Labour. Labour under Quinn are firmly centrist - not far from Fianna Fáil in fact, and why vote for a pale-pink copy when you can have Bertie? - so there was a gap in the market on the Left which SF have filled. And comments from the likes of Tommy Broughan TD and Mary Upton TD show that Labour realises this and may try to swing back to regain old territory.

In terms of realpolitik, an (allegedly) hard-left protest-party concentrating on disadvantaged areas will never be able to get more than about 12 seats at the absolute maximum! 5 out of 166 isn't exactly a mass-movement for radical change, and all the SF spiel conveniently ignores the fact that the Greens and the PDs got more seats. They simply do not deserve the amount of hype and hysterical comment they've attracted. And if they didn't have a private army lurking in the wings, nobody would care that they got a whole 5 seats...

With FF and FF-friendly Independents sitting pretty with a comfortable working majority, and the PDs, Labour and Greens all available to be seduced by Bertie should the need arise, SF will spend the next 5 years sitting on the opposition backbenches. Now, an all-out war is about to break out for the mantle of Leading Opposition Party, which is where SF have a possibility of shining and raising their profile - if all their new TDs perform in the Dáil. But the competition is tough - especially if the resurgent PDs decide to go into Opposition to finish off Fine Gael. It's not going to be easy for SF to carve out a distinctive, attractive soft-focus leftish niche in Irish politics when the Greens, Labour and the social democrat wing of FG are all scrambling to occupy precisely the same position. And in reality that is where any substantial extra votes and seats will be.

SF has a stark choice. They can stay on the (allegedly) hard-left, attempt to monopolise the unemployed, working poor, anti-establishment disaffected vote and stay in the 5-8 seat range - which means depending on the next election to throw up a hung Dáil to have any influence. Or, they can attempt what they did in the North to the SDLP - cannibalise Labour and FG policies and move to capture the mass-market Social Democrat vote in the hope of breaking through to the 20-30 seat range. While this worked well against a tired SDLP, in the south this involves running headlong into stiff competition from Labour, FG and the Greens and running the risk of losing the base vote that got them the initial 5 seats.

On the other hand, the electorate plainly wants a strong social-democrat party to emerge as a counter to Fianna Fáil, and have given the nod to all the opposition parties to prove themselves. If SF manage to outperform all the others and become the de-facto Opposition then the potential gains are huge.

But enough of SF. Overall, it’s good that Fine Gael have been finished off as a putative National Movement, though most expected it to happen at the next election. There are, after all, no circumstances in which Blueshirt misery is a Bad Thing. And the new Opposition should make for a much more interesting Dáil this time round. The PDs and the Greens in opposition, with FF by themselves in Govt, would really liven things up and make for great epoch-changing politics. The problem with the last opposition was that FG and Labour had 76 seats between them and nothing ever happened. Nor were either of them a credible alternative, sharing as they did exactly the same consensual centrist policies of FF. This time that's down to 52, and both parties know they have to get serious with the re-invention to survive. Add PDs, SF and Greens to the mix and you have a lot of dynamic energy going on on the other side of the House. Which hopefully will pan out into a real and credible opposition and alternative to Fianna Fáil emerging in time for the next election.

All in all, while on the downside we can look forward to 5 more unbroken years of centre-right Fianna Fáil dominance, on the other hand Fine Gael’s dead stranglehold on Opposition politics, which for decades has pervented a credible left-leaning alternative from emerging, has finally been broken. We can expect interesting times ahead, and most of the interest will lie in watching the struggle for dominance between the currently fragmented Opposition parties. Who said politics was boring?



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