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Ireland’s Quiet Political Revolution

Despite electoral tumult, residents of the Emerald Isle are less anxious than Americans.
Ireland’s Quiet Political Revolution

Once every four years my social media feed goes bananas; hundreds of colleagues in my native USA promise that the upcoming election will the most important moment in history, the last chance to fulfill our promise as leaders of the planet or save ourselves from sliding into totalitarian darkness. This time around I know people who have supported Trump, Rubio, Paul, Cruz, Carson, Clinton, Sanders, and Stein, with every fan base seeing themselves as hobbits standing up to Sauron. Too few of my friends on the left or right pay much attention to the other 195 countries of the world, or the fact that some of their elections and voter frustrations parallel the USA in instructive ways.

Here in Ireland, for example, we saw the same 2008 crash and Potemkin recovery, similar anti-government protests and civil disobedience. And in last month’s election, just as in the American primaries, many voters abandoned the mainstream choices and flocked to political independents promising radical change—and no one knows quite what will happen next.

The two countries’ upsets filtered through different voting systems: In the U.S., independents Trump and Sanders had to declare themselves a nominal Republican and Democrat, as the system effectively shuts out third parties. Ireland, though, is parliamentary; voters select their representatives in the Dail (the parliament, pronounced something like “Doyle”). The majority party—or coalition of parties—then create the ruling administration.

The U.S. is unlikely to chuck the Constitution for a parliamentary system any time soon, but Ireland has a few other innovations that my countrymen should consider. We vote for up to several people to represent one district, usually from more than one party. Voting districts are not gerrymandered into bizarre shapes, so seats are not pre-determined. We rank our choices first to last, and if candidates don’t reach a certain quota on the first round, voters’ subsequent choices are factored in—like being able to choose Rand Paul over Sanders, Sanders over Trump, and Trump over Clinton. Such rules allow voters here to fire their public servants more easily than in my native country, where one group gains extraordinary federal power by some slim margin, and voters have only one choice more than in authoritarian states like North Korea.

The two main parties, Fianna Fail (rhymes with fall, not fail) and Fine Gael (actually does rhyme with fail) parallel American Democrats and Republicans in some ways; in theory, they were ideological opposites descended from the bitter rivalry of the Irish Civil War. In practice both were centrist, pro-business parties sustained mostly by old family loyalties, reliably getting a large chunk of the votes and taking turns holding power.

On our most recent election night in February, though, the mainstream parties were shocked to receive their worst results ever, 25 and 30 percent each, while almost half the votes went to third parties and independents—the nationalist Sinn Fein, an alphabet soup of small activist parties, and an army of locally-supported wild cards. Now the government hangs in limbo, as representatives of many parties must duct-tape a coalition together.

The U.S. and Ireland also entered the 21st century with very different pasts that shape voter expectations. Americans today grew up in a superpower, surrounded by the massive infrastructure of suburban wealth; Ireland remained an agrarian and traditional society until the last few decades, and only then, during an economic boom in the 1990s, was modernized at bewildering speed.

Millions of Irish built homes with the new wealth, commuter towns increased several hundred percent in size, and the construction was financed by an escalating debt bubble. When the banks collapsed in 2008, the Fianna Fail government made the fatal decision to guarantee all bank debt with public funds. Those promises came back to haunt them in 2010, when the country went effectively bankrupt and had to be bailed out by the European Union and International Monetary Fund. Ireland has chafed under its debt burden ever since, and many of my neighbors feel that they left the boom worse than they entered.

After this economic crisis, in 2011, the once-dominant Fianna Fail lost 60 percent of their support—the greatest fall of any party in Irish history. A Fine Gael-led coalition took power, but support for third parties and independents began to rise. The new government’s honeymoon quickly wore off; the terms of the bailout limited their power to make changes, and a series of new taxes and fees angered an already struggling populace. (Water charges introduced in late 2014, for example, spurred massive public protests that are still going 18 months later, and almost half of all households have simply refused to pay them.)

When the time came for a new election this year, Fine Gael’s slogan, “Let’s Keep the Recovery Going,” garnered only horse laughter from people who weren’t feeling the recovery. In the end, Ireland’s recent history of bubble, bust, and bailout effectively destroyed generations-old political loyalties, leading one wag to comment that Angela Merkel had finally ended Ireland’s civil war.

In the U.S., populist groundswells for Trump and Sanders might be strong enough to tear the two parties apart without actually leading their candidates to victory. In the same way, Ireland’s surge of independents crippled the two main parties, but are not strong enough to take power themselves; even if they could all work together, they would be just shy of a majority.

That leaves every politico and pundit in the country frantically shuffling numbers around to see what kind of government is possible, and whatever agreement party leaders reach in the coming weeks will result in the strangest in the Republic’s history. The possibilities include:

  1. The two mainstream parties go into coalition with each other. Picture Republicans Rubio and Kasich forming a government with Hillary Clinton to stop Trump and Sanders, and you see how much pride would have to be swallowed.
  2. A minority Fine Gael government cobbled together with many, many independents, who are meeting with Fine Gael leaders one by one and presenting lists of individual demands in exchange for co-operation.
  3. Everyone gives up and a new election is called, and all the candidates re-open their campaign offices.

In theory, if the next election results tip even further away from the main parties, the next government could be run by the largest third party—in this case the socialist Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army during the terrorism of the 1970s and ’80s. That’s not as frightening as it sounds: they abandoned violence two decades ago, and have been increasingly accepted as a legitimate party. But it would be unprecedented, with unknown effects on Ireland’s relations with Britain and Europe.

For now the country feels strangely like the U.S. did in November of 2000—but with a few important differences. People here don’t demand global dominance or an endless boom, just jobs and basic infrastructure. Since the system allows for many parties to participate, voters know they can blow off frustrations without destroying the established order. Most importantly, voters here lack the sense of imminent apocalypse that haunts Americans. Some Irish are celebrating after the election, some are chastened, some are making deals—but no one is panicking. Whatever happens, they’ll get through this.

Brian Kaller has written for Energy Bulletin, Front Porch Republic, and the Dallas Morning News. He and his family live in rural Ireland.



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