by David Granville
LAST THURSDAY, voters in the Republic of Ireland went to the polls to elect a new government. Even though the 26-county state operates one of the most convoluted PR system known to humankind and that the final tally can take days to emerge, it was evident by early Saturday morning that Fianna Fail had done far better than expected and that Bertie Ahern would serve a third term as taoiseach.
It was also clear that while the Green Party, Labour and Sinn Fein had just about managed to hold their own in terms of vote share, all failed to increase their representation.
In the case of the Sinn Fein, the party found itself down one seat on its 2002 total, a significant setback for a party which had been widely tipped by friend and foe alike to make significant gains.
The unexpected defeat of Dublin Socialist Party veteran Joe Higgins, was another indication that the smaller parties had all been squeezed by a revival in fortunes of the country's two main conservative rivals, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
The only really good news for the left was the trouncing of the reactionary Progressive Democrats. News of the defeat of the party's leader, the vehemently anti-left, anti-republican former justice minister, Michael McDowell being particularly welcome.
Having failed to secure an overall majority, Fianna Fail party leaders will have now turned their attention to the formation of a new coalition. This is most likely to see a renewal of the Fianna/Progressive Democrat alliance with the addition of a number of independent TDs to ensure an overall majority..
Prior to the election, commentators, party strategists and bookmakers alike agreed that it was going to be a close run affair with neither the outgoing Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition (a marriage of convenience encompassing opportunistic populism, pro-EU fervour and Thatcherite economic policies), nor the proposed left-right Fine Gael/Labour/Green coalition (the equivalent here would bring together Labour, the Conservatives and the Greens) expected to be able to secure enough seats to form a governing coalition.
Only two weeks ago, allegations of financial corruption involving Bertie Ahern and poor poll ratings appeared to indicate that Fianna Fail was heading for heavy losses. This did not prove to be the case. By the end of the final count, Fianna Fail was down only three seats on its 2002 total - a remarkable achievement given that the outgoing coalition had already served two terms in office and the financial scandals that have dogged party leader Bertie Ahern in recent weeks.
Sinn Fein, on the other hand, had hoped to double its representation in the Dail from five to ten, therefore putting itself in a strong position when the post-election political horse-trading began. Although it's share of the vote rose slightly, the widely predicted surge in support simply didn't materialise. The party appears to have suffered badly from a late swing in support to Fianna Fail and the problem of not being able to secure enough transfer votes.
The result will undoubtedly be viewed as a major setback for the party. As to whether its performance had anything to do with its toning down some its more left-wing rhetoric, including the watering down it's redistributive tax policies, or was due to a combination of this and other factors, remains unclear. One conclusion that can be drawn is that the peace process in the north is clearly no longer sufficient to give the party significant momentum south of the border.
It was also noticeable that the party remained silent on the question of the EU, including the fact that the Irish government looks set to sign up to new version of the EU constitution rejected by the Dutch and French peoples in referenda two years ago.
Sinn Fein's political timidity on the question of the further undermining of Irish sovereignty possible provides an indication of the how far the party might have been prepared to go to had it been in a position to join a Fianna Fail-led coalition or to have entered into an agreement to support a Fianna Fail minority government.
Other factors which influenced Sinn Fein's electoral performance undoubtedly included Gerry Adam's poor performance on the Prime Time TV debate and the fact that Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and virtually all the other parties, went out of their way to say they would not join a coalition with Sinn Fein.
However, Labour, whose poorer-than-expected showing will undoubtedly cause some soul searching over the wisdom of having nailed its colours to a Labour/Fine Gael/Green coalition, went so far as to suggest, in the days leading up to the election, that it might be prepared to switch 'sides' and join a Fianna Fail coalition, if this was what it would take to keep Sinn Fein out of government.
As soon as it became clear that Sinn Fein's TDs would not be needed to form a new government, Labour leader Pat Rabbite showed no shame or hesitation over reverting to his earlier stance of 'no coalition with Fianna Fail'.
As all this suggest, that there is little about politics in the 26 counties makes sense in class terms - just part of a malign legacy arising from Britain's past colonial involvement and the divisions and political culture arising from partition, the 1921 treaty and the Irish civil war which followed. It also demonstrates a disturbingly high level of political opportunism.
Yet, with the major issues facing the Irish electorate similar to those faced by people here in Britain - not least of which being the growing gap between rich and poor and concerns over employment, housing, health, pensions, transport,racism and the further undermining of national sovereignty within the EU - it's hard to see how another conservative, pro-EU Fianna Fail-led government will be capable of producing anything more progressive or equitable than the previous two coalition governments.
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Copyright © 2007 David Granville