Monday, 24 January 2011

Irish government falls

Ireland is set to be the first country to see a government fall as a result of the eurozone crisis, following yesterday's announcement by the Green Party that it is deserting the governing coalition. The news has thrown Ireland into political turmoil as politicians tussle to set the date for an election whose result will be anything but certain.

In a hastily arranged press conference yesterday the leader of Ireland's Greens, an environmental party, said there had been a "breakdown in trust" between the two parties and the Greens patience had reached an end. The ruling Fianna Fail party, which has governed Ireland almost continuously since 1987, failed to get an outright majority at the last general election in 2007 and so formed a coalition government with the Green Party to put them over the edge.

But the government has been under fire over the past year because of its handling of the debt crisis. The Irish public largely blames Fianna Fail not only for presiding over the boom period of heavy borrowing and the housing bubble, but also for its decision to bail out the Irish banks by guaranteeing their holdings and for accepting an EU bailout fund with strict conditions attached. The pressure became so acute that on Saturday Prime Minister Brian Cowen (pictured above) resigned as leader of the party, though without resigning as the prime minister - a situation highly unusual in a parliamentary democracy. Apparently this was all too much for the Green Party, which announced it was bolting just 24 hours later.

But though the Irish political parties are now fighting over when the general election will be held, the government has not yet technically fallen. That's because the Greens have said they will continue to support Fianna Fail for the next two weeks until it passes an essential finance bill. That legislation must be passed before any of the €84 billion in the EU bailout fund is dispersed to Ireland, and if the bill is delayed until after an election it could cause Ireland's debt rating to collapse and force the country to leave the eurozone.

Whenever the election is held, Fianna Fail is set to lose and lose big. This could usher in a tidal change in Irish politics since Fianna Fail has been the dominant political force in the country since Irish independence. It is neither a centre-left or centre-right party, rather being described as a 'middle road' party that has historically been primarily concerned with Irish independence and well-being. In Europe, the party is aligned with the Liberals.

It remains to be seen which party will come out on top. Right now public disillusion with Irish politics is so high that it is likely no party will be a clear winner and a grand coalition between many different parties will have to be formed. In this scenario it is not inconceivable that Cowen could even remain prime minister, though this is highly unlikely. It will be an interesting election to watch.

1 comment:

Eurocentric said...

Under what senario could Cowen remain Taoiseach? Fianna Fáil would need to be the biggest party in the governing coalition, and Cowen would need to be leader of it in order for him to become Taoiseach again - so it is a certainty that he cannot remain as Taoiseach.

It has generally been the case in Irish politics that government switches between FF + others and Fine Gael + Labour (Grand coalition), and this is what is assumed will happen after the election. The big difference is that Labour may go from being the 3rd party to being the 2nd party (or even 1st, though that is less likely now), while FF and Sinn Féin will be fighting for the leadership of the opposition (FF will probably get it).

It has been treated as a certainty that it will be a Grand Coalition, though the strength of its constituent parties is the major question now. Unless the polls become more fluid during the election, we'll probably see a general shift to the left, but with the further/far left parties of Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance being seen by Labour as too dubious and extreme to enter into government with.