Bye bye Biffo*

It’s general election day in the Irish Republic. After the tumultuous – or GUBU – events that led to the collapse of the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition in January the election campaign was rather anti-climactic: bereft of talking points and gaffe-free.

One thing that we can say for certain is that Enda Kenny will be appointed an Taoiseach – or Prime Minister – and lead Fine Gael to government from fourteen years of opposition. Three important questions follow.

First, will Fine Gael have enough seats to govern with the support of a few independent deputies or will the party be forced into a coalition with the Labour Party? The former scenario is very much possible. Opinion polls suggest that Fine Gael will come close, but probably not quite reach, the 83 seats required to have a majority in the Dáil Éireann (the lower house of the Irish parliament). Arguments and counter-claims between Fine Gael and Labour – historically its favoured coalition partner during the relatively few occasions when Fianna Fáil’s stranglehold on power was loosened – provided the only ‘entertainment’ and talking points during the campaign.

Secondly, will the Fianna Fáil vote collapse or, in a best-case scenario from its viewpoint, could its core vote sustain and allow a bloodied but intact party to claim the second largest number of seats? Ireland’s economic decline has been rapid and unforgiving. The ghost which has haunted and brought emotional turmoil the island over the past three centuries is back: emigration. Fianna Fáil, having presided over the heady boom and the caustic bust, will pay the price for this at the polls. But the party, under the new leadership of Michéal Martin, has both stabilised and recovered from, at one point, a rating as low as 13%: quite a fall from grace for a party that has been in power for a total of 61 years during its 85-year existence.

Finally, will Sinn Féin finally make its much-anticipated breakthrough? The party currently holds five seats. It has been suggested that the party could triple that number: some predictions go further than that. Sinn Féin found itself in very similar circumstances on the eve of the 2007 election only to find that it actually lost a seat. Five years ago the party was weighed down by its leader’s, Gerry Adams, perceived economic illiteracy as well as its very recent past as the political wing of the Provisional IRA. Things are, of course, different now: the economic catastrophe paints Gerry Adams’ pseudo-Marxist economic views in a new light while memories of the dark days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland are fading. Adams has also made, to put it mildly, questionable propositions on the IMF and EU bailout.

The answers to all three questions will be clear by dinner time tomorrow (Saturday). But, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think. On question one, Fine Gael will indeed choose to govern alone but will depend on the support of independent deputies. On question two, Fianna Fáil will emerge as the second largest party in terms of seats. Talk of its decline has been much exaggerated and nowhere do old habits die harder than in Ireland. On question three, Sinn Féin’s gains will be more modest than predicted: maybe taking eight or nine seats in total.

*Biffo is both a term of endearment and abuse, depending on your viewpoint, for outgoing Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

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