The results of our General Election suggest that the end may be nigh for civil war politics in Ireland, but only time will tell, writes Sarah Slevin.
The first day of the 31st Dáil made for unfamiliar viewing. Having elected Enda Kenny as the first Fine Gael Taoiseach in 14 years, the subsequent seating rearrangement demonstrated visually the colossal majority of the new Government. Dominating two-thirds of the House, Fine Gael and Labour no doubt found that the view was much more gratifying from that side of the floor. Meanwhile, the diminished Soldiers of Destiny returned from the one battle in which they were comprehensively defeated. With an emboldened Sinn Féin and a motley crew of Independents, Dáil debates are poised to be that little bit more interesting. If only for a little while.
Election 2011 attracted one of the highest turnouts in recent decades. The electorate had a statement to make, and it has been heard loud and clear in the corridors of Leinster House. It also proved to be the election of the superlatives, as while Fianna Fáil suffered the worst result in their history, everyone else had their best. The transformation in terms of seat numbers would indicate that this is one of the most momentous elections in our State’s narrative. However, whether this is to be a watershed period in Irish politics is yet to be decided. Seat numbers alone cannot truly represent the real story of an election, nor can they alone depict a dramatic change in an electorate’s mindset.
Peter Mair, professor of Comparative Politics at the European University Institute, Florence spoke on RTE radio recently. He believes the Irish general election to be the third most volatile in the history of post-war European democracy. Describing this further, he said that there was a seismic shift in voting patterns not normally seen in democratic elections. It was also significant that this was achieved without the intervention of a new political party, as was the case in those elections that beat us to the top of the electoral volatility list.
Volatile it may have been, but its capacity to fundamentally alter our political system goes beyond transient voting patterns. For 90 years, the civil war has held a vice-like grip over Irish politics. Political parties like Clann na Poblachta and the Progressive Democrats will attest to the strength of that grip, as they tried, and failed, to permanently break the mould of Irish politics. To those who are unfamiliar with politics in this country, it must seem an alien thing for an event that occurred generations previously to dominate modern voting patterns. Common sense should indicate that it will take more than one election to emerge from the shadow it casts over us. However, the stage has never been set more perfectly for a shift away from these ancient divisions.
The next five years will be vital in deciding the legacy of the election. Fianna Fáil, despite huge losses, remain the largest party in opposition. Consequently, they should stand to gain the most from the inevitable fall in popularity of the government. It is also dependant on how the left wing opposition parties, Sinn Féin and the ULA, build on their gains. Both parties will probably concentrate their attacks on Labour, as the spending cuts implemented by the government will be at odds with their left wing aspirations. As well as this, the promised political reforms could make the system more conducive to more diverse parties.
If we are to reject the old ways, then the natural progression would be to a more European ideological divide. Proponents of this left/right spectrum say it offers a real choice to the electorate, rather than the illusion of choice we have had in this country over the years. However, the question is do the Irish electorate want to move to this type of divide? Surely the very fact our politics survived this long shows that what we want is consistency and stability. After all, the politicians are representative of the people who elect them.
Ireland is somewhat unique in a European context in terms of its politics. Our history and divisions continue to have a sustained and profound impact on our political structure. These structures have been bombarded over recent weeks, and whether they will remain standing is yet to be seen. But it will be for forthcoming years, not the past few week, to tell us if the walls of our political system are to be permanently torn down.