DUBLIN — “Vote Conservative-Come back under the wing,” read a series of spoof posters, illustrated with an unmistakeably British gentleman in a bowler hat, and pasted around Dublin in the run-up to the general election.
Of course, no Conservative party has stood for election in Ireland since independence, a process commonly agreed to have begun in earnest with the Easter Rising of 1916, when rebels occupied Dublin’s General Post Office in defiance of British rule.
The centenary of the Rising will be celebrated in Ireland over the coming days and weeks with much fervor.
National pride is never in short supply in Ireland, but the spoof poster did touch on a deep mistrust that the Irish have of their politicians; a feeling that they are, as a class, self-serving, overpaid, and frequently focused on their personal outcomes at the expense of the common good or national stability.
Irish political history is littered with the husks of corrupt politicians—the late Taoiseach (as the prime minister is known) Charlie Haughey being perhaps the most visible example. It is conservatively estimated that he stashed away the equivalent of €45m during and after his time in office.
Irish anxieties around the general uselessness of their political class have been reinforced by a slow-playing farce that has ensued in the wake of the February general election, which saw no party win a clear majority. Remorseless antagonism between the two major parties means that Ireland will, embarrassingly, be in the hands of a caretaker administration for the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.
Of the 158 seats, 50 went to the ruling Fine Gael party, 43 to their civil-war era rival Fianna Fáil, 23 to Gerry Adams’s Sinn Féin, 7 to Labour (which had been in coalition with Fine Gael) and the rest to an assortment of left-wing independents.
The Dáil (parliament) met for the first time last week and failed to elect a Taoiseach, which meant in turn that a government could not be appointed. The outgoing Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, resigned, but is staying in post as caretaker until a credible Taoiseach can be appointed, which may now require a second election.
The disdain for the politicians was accurately captured by the writer Tim Pat Coogan, who commented, “The hard-won Parliament that ultimately emerged from the flames of the General Post Office presents a sorry spectacle these days. The lip service that has been paid to the idealism of 1916 is being drowned by the sound of the slurping noises from the snouts buried in the trough of patronage.”
The irony is that there are amazingly few actual policy differences between the two deadly rivals of FF and FG— both are very right-wing by European standards, and there is no coherent left-wing party, rather a rag-tag of variously more or less socialist independents who largely campaigned on a nebulous ‘anti-austerity’ platform.
As the Sinn Féin environment spokesperson Peadar Toibín put it, “There is not a cigarette paper between (FF and FG) with regards their ideological attitudes towards the country.”
(Sinn Fein has attempted to cast off its links to the IRA and recast itself as a hard left party.)
However, despite much urging, FF and FG have so far appeared to be unwilling to finally bury the hatchet and go into coalition together. Part of their reluctance to do so appears to be that Sinn Fein would then be the official opposition, a position that would inevitably give them a powerful platform and further electoral gains.
Thus it is that this Easter, when Ireland should be celebrating its evolution into a successful modern democracy, it will instead be presenting to the world the public pathology of its ancient dysfunctions and tribal hatreds.
Even the annual St Patrick’s Day PR blitz on America—which sees the Irish PM invited to spend a few minutes in the company of the President in the Oval Office, ahead of Thursday’s official celebrations back home— has been cut short this year as the political maneuvering continues.
Irish political life has been dominated by FF and FG for decades, and, with few exceptions, one or the other has been able to rule either by straight majority or by cajoling smaller parties and independents to join them in a coalition for decades.
But years of austerity, tax rises and hated water charges (levied in a largely successful attempt to balance the books after the Irish banking crisis) led to a groundswell in support for ‘anti-austerity’ independents.
A minority FG government supported on a case-by-case basis is not a very appealing prospect for Enda Kenny, and it is entirely possible that another election will be called over the summer.
In the meantime, while there are very, very few wingnuts who truly hanker for a return to British rule, there are many who are frustrated and angry that Ireland cannot emulate the political stability of its former master across the water.