Can Labour capitalise on Fine Gael’s leadership election?

By Maeve Glavey
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23 March 2017
Ireland Ireland
Despite turmoil for the governing party it is difficult to see how the centre left in Ireland can take advantage
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Last year was eventful for Ireland. The country held a general election, commemorated the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916 when it took its first steps towards independence from British colonial rule, and watched its closest neighbour and largest trading partner vote to depart the EU. In 2017, the decisions made at home and abroad the previous year have left the country somewhat lacking in clarity about its future direction.

Having led a fragile minority government for just under a year, Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny, of centre-right party Fine Gael, has agreed to step down. Kenny had previously headed, from 2011-16, a Fine Gael-Labour coalition that had the unenviable task of presiding over the bulk of Ireland’s post-crash austerity programme. The announcement of the departure, followed a scandal in which a sergeant in the national police force, who had acted as a whistle-blower on police corruption, was wrongly accused of child sex abuse. In February, as a result of the scandal, the republican party Sinn Féin tabled a motion of no confidence in the government. Kenny and his team survived the vote, but by a narrow margin, and were significantly weakened by it. Pressure from within his own party has now forced Kenny to confirm that he will step down from the leadership, but not when.

With Brexit looming and the future of relations with Britain and Northern Ireland – which recently held its own elections – unclear, there is demand for strong leadership and many feel that after six years it is time for a change. Kenny has not yet fixed a date for his departure, but his trip to the US for St Patrick’s Day last week is likely to have been his last major foreign engagement as Ireland’s leader. Perhaps with an eye to his political obituaries, amid the usual bon homie he used his visit to to pointedly refer, in presence of the decidedly anti-immigration President Trump, to the history of Irish immigration to America, likening St Patrick to a “patron saint of immigrants”. The speech has since gone viral and won him liberal plaudits outside of Ireland. Back home the main contenders to replace Kenny are minister for social protection, Leo Varadkar, and minister for housing, planning and local government, Simon Coveney. When Kenny does finally depart it is likely to be an intense leadership conference, tough for a party that governs with no parliamentary majority.

Despite this turmoil it is difficult to see how the centre left in Ireland can take advantage. The Labour party, which paid the price for being in an austerity coalition, scoring the worst election result in its history last year, holds just seven seats in the Dáil and has been criticised by some for being too quiet in the months since its hammering at the ballot box. Its leader Brendan Howlin, installed after the defeat, is a seasoned politician and personally widely respected. But with the attention on the trouble at the top of the government he has struggled to breakthrough, with Labour recently polling at a dismal 6%. Part of Labour’s problem is that with many voters perceiving little difference between Ireland’s two traditional major parties those looking for an alternative are turning to more radical alternatives, ignoring a Labour party still hobbled by the perception of being part of the establishment. Those attracted to the left have other options, particularly reflected in the growing popularity of Sinn Féin in the Republic.

The Social Democrats, founded in 2015, have set out to capture Labour’s disillusioned voters and position themselves as offering a new social democratic option. The party holds two seats in parliament, having won three in 2016’s election but suffering a recent embarrassment when one of its founders and key members departed for Fianna Fáil. Nonetheless, it has been attracting reasonable support for a new party and could provide a useful platform on which to develop progressive ideas if Labour’s woes continue. To complicate matters further, there are several options further to the left including the newly renamed Solidarity–People Before Profit party and a plethora of leftwing independents.

As in much of Europe, the Irish centre left requires a rejuvenation if it is to be taken seriously again as a potential force of government. In Kenny’s stateside speech, he stressed the global outlook of the Irish, the importance of the country’s status as an EU member, and the value it places on tolerance and liberty. These are issues on which the Irish centre left must surely have much to say. With change afoot in Ireland, it remains to be seen how many among the public are willing to listen.