Fine Gael have lost ground to Fianna Fail in the latest Irish election polls and face furtehr competiton from the Irish Labour Party.

Ireland’s General Election: Five Talking Points

Just a week after Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny formally dissolved the Dáil and set a date of 26 February for the country’s latest General Election, the issues that will determine the outcome of the vote are beginning to take shape.

Here follows a list of five key talking points to keep an eye on as the campaigning gets underway.

  1. Fine Gael’s Stability Platform May Not Sufficient

When Fine Gael swept to power as the senior member of a coalition government formed with the Irish Labour Party in 2011, they did so with Ireland mired in the deepest economic crisis in the history of the state. The Fianna Fáil led coalition government’s controversial 2008 decision to bail out Ireland’s failing banks saw the Republic forced to implement a stringent, long-term austerity programme in order to make itself eligible to receive a joint EU-IMF funded bailout of its own.

Five years on, the Irish electorate take to the polls in a far more settled economic climate and it is ultimately the public’s attitude towards the means through which this stability was achieved that will determine the outcome of Kenny’s bid to become the first leader of an austerity government in the Eurozone to win re-election.

Ireland exited the EU-IMF bailout programme at the end of 2013, debt has been reduced, the budget has been balanced, employment and consumer spending are rising and Ireland now possesses the fastest growing economy in the European Union.

However, many lower and middle income voters inevitably suffered as a result of the spending cuts and tax increases that the austerity programme entailed, and while Fine Gael still lead polls on 28% according to the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, they are down two points from their November figures and are well short of the 36% that propelled them to office in 2011.

The governing party are vulnerable, and any government that Fine Gael do form will be in coalition with a rival.

  1. Can Fianna Fail Revive?

When Fianna Fáil’s 20 consecutive years in government came to an end in 2011, the party wasn’t so much voted out of office as it was purged of political relevance.

Fianna Fáil finished the 2011 election with just 15 percent of the vote, it lost more than half of its first-preference vote from the 2007 election and won only 20 of 166 parliamentary seats. Indeed, Fianna Fáil were beaten into fourth place by a rag-tag assemblage of anti-establishment independent candidates in what was the party’s worst electoral performance since its foundation under Éamon De Valera in the 1920s.

Indeed, the University College Dublin historian, Diarmaid Ferriter, wrote in the Irish Times that the party would face an enormous task recapturing public relevance after the catastrophe of 2011.

“Fianna Fáil’s vote collapsed because it managed to alienate all sections of Irish society, beyond a hard core of loyalists,” Ferriter observed.

“Almost all its candidates witnessed anger on the canvass because so many people are experiencing fear and uncertainty about issues that historically have caused much pain to the Irish, and which they hoped during the boom had been consigned to history – mass unemployment, emigration, dispossession and loss of control of national destiny.”

Five years on, a degree of the toxicity which characterized public perception of Fianna Fail has inevitably dissipated. While the party leader, ‎Micheál Martin, retains a connection to the administration which oversaw the 2008 bailout, most of the old guard have been removed and replaced by younger faces keen to craft a new image of the party as a reforming force.

The fact that the latest polling data shows Fianna Fáil as having drawn to within seven points of Fine Gael bodes positively for their chances of getting back into government as the junior member of a coalition; however, the legacies of the Irish civil war still seem set to prevent Fianna Fáil from ever governing alongside Fine Gael.

  1. Labour Face Spectre of the Greens

If the 2011 election purged Fianna Fáil of political relevance, it did something far worse to the Green Party.

The Greens entered government with Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats in June, 2007 having seen its share of first preference votes increase by some 22 percent from 3.84 percent in 2002 to 4.69 percent nationally. However, the onset of the global financial crisis saw the Greens’ support collapse at a rate commensurate with that of Fianna Fáil and the party was wiped out in the 2011 election.

The Greens lost all six of their Dáil seats in 2011, including those of former Ministers John Gormley and Eamon Ryan, and the fact that the party’s share of the vote fell below 2 percent meant that they lost all state funding.

While it is unlikely that Labour will capitulate on quite the same level as the Greens this month, party leader, Joan Burton, must feel uneasy at how poorly they are polling.

The latest figures show that Labour’s support has fallen from 19 percent in 2011 to just 7 percent two weeks out from the election. As was the case with the Greens five years ago, Labour are seen to have abandoned their left-wing campaign platform in the interests of power and their supporters will inevitably take a dimmer view of the statistical success of austerity then Fine Gael’s constituency.

In this context it seems likely that Labour’s support alone will be insufficient for Fine Gael to return to office at the head of a coalition.

  1. Sinn Fein Could Be King-Makers

Despite ceding two points to Fianna Fáil in last week’s poll (dropping from 21 to 19 percent), Sinn Fein appear the party best placed to capitalize on Labour supporter unrest on election day and may well hold the keys to government for Fine Gael when the votes are finally counted.

Although traditionally perceived as the “political wing” of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Fein has sought to reposition itself as a left wing party in the Republic in the years since the formalization of the Good Friday Agreement and they have enjoyed steady progress in the polls since 2011 by leading parliamentary criticism of the government’s austerity policies.

Sinn Fein campaign on a platform that promises a more equitable distribution of wealth and younger party spokespeople such as Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty have succeeded in broadening the party’s appeal beyond its traditional, Republican base.

However, the manner in which the controversies surrounding Máiría Cahill, Thomas “Slab” Murphy and the Regency Hotel shootings (connected with the so-called Continuity IRA) have dented Sinn Fein’s support in recent months lends weight to the view that, until leader Gerry Adams steps aside, the party will never realize its electoral potential in the Dáil.

  1. Independents

The banking crisis did much to erode public faith in the three major parties – Fine Gale, Fianna Fail, Labour – which have underpinned the Irish political system since the foundation of the Free State, and just as many voters have turned against the establishment, so too have some politicians.

While one or two fringe parties have gained traction as an anti-establishment, anti-austerity voice in Ireland in recent years (notably the Socialist Party and People Before Profit), no movement has developed on a scale analogues to Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. Instead, frustration at the political orthodoxy in Ireland has been most powerfully expressed in the rise of independent candidates.

A record 14 independents were elected in 2011 with five further TD’s representing fringe parties. These numbers are expected to increase again in two weeks’ time and it may be the case that Mr. Kenny is negotiating with an alliance of independents rather than with Sinn Fein or Labour in order to form a new government.

[Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images]