If the wipe-out of the political establishment which has taken place here in Scotland and elsewhere in Europe is mirrored in the result of Ireland's general election on Friday (26 February) women and radical independents will be to the fore when the Republic comes to celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising.
It will be mainly skirts not suits and politically non-aligned representatives who are prominent in the VIP line-up for the commemoration and celebration on Easter Monday, outside Dublin’s GPO, where the battle for independence, led by the Scottish trade unionist James Connolly, took place in 1916.
For this to happen, Enda Kenny will have to fail in his quest to become the first Fine Gael taoiseach to win consecutive polls. Kenny hopes a fall in unemployment and a rise in tax revenues will persuade the Irish electorate to put him back. Three women will be waiting in the wings to take over should he fall – Labour’s Joan Burton, Frances Fitzgerald of Fine Gael and Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein. One of them could become Ireland’s first female taoiseach. More women than ever before are standing for election.
The last named is the most surprising, but according to respected Dublin political correspondent Deaglan De Breadun, it could be a case of Hello Mary Lou, Goodbye Gerry (Adams) if the bearded one fails to make it back to the Dail. De Breadun, in his book 'Power Play, the Rise of Modern Sinn Fein', writes: 'She is often spoken of as the future leader of Sinn Fein and if or more likely when the party enters a coalition government, it is inconceivable that she would not be a cabinet minister'.
Irish Times pundit Harry McGee agrees: 'There are few politicians who impress TDs from other parties more than McDonald. She is a great communicator, authoritative and focused. That makes her a front-runner'. Burton has led the Labour Party in the coalition government and has shown her mettle in difficult and embarrassing situations. She was unlawfully detained in her car for two hours by people protesting against the imposition of water charges, and she fell out of a rowing boat and was rescued while inspecting flood damage in Kilkenny in December.
Frances Fitzgerald is the Fine Gael justice minister who has been entrusted by Kenny to keep the lid on the influx of refugees from the Middle East. This immigration crisis has brought placard-waving protestors on to the streets. Fitzgerald has brought calm confidence to her post even when confronted by the clerical abuse scandal, which rocked Catholic Ireland to the core. She has also had the tough job of dealing with tit for tat murders amongst drug gangs in Dublin’s inner city.
The economy though is set to dominate this Irish election, which follows several years of turbulence during which the republic suffered a severe downturn after the financial crash in 2008. Then billions of euros were borrowed from the EU and the International Monetary Fund to prevent the total collapse of the banking system. The country’s finances were taken over by representatives from the troika – the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF – and unemployment hit almost 15%.
This was a shattering blow to an economy that during the Celtic Tiger years had enjoyed near full employment. Enda Kenny and the outgoing Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition will argue that it has steered the economy out of the tempest, which left in its wake an angry and dispirited population, many of whom lost their jobs and even their homes before taking the emigration option.
Henry McDonald, Ireland correspondent of the Observer, says figures released recently by the Department of Finance showed unemployment at 8.6%, down from a high of nearly 16% in 2011, and a 7% year-on-year increase in tax revenues to €4.5bn. Much of the increase has come from increased VAT returns – a sign that confidence is coming back and Irish consumers are starting to spend again.
But will the sight of the old school politicians in their Louis Copeland suits and Chavret shirts, exemplified by Kenny, the archetypal, smooth-talking – some would say oleaginous - establishment politician drive the voters to support the leftist politics the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising aspired to but never achieved? Ireland failed to secure a 32-county republic then and the Marxist policies of Connolly were swiftly discarded by Eamonn De Valera and his right-wing party from the day and hour Dail Eireann first sat in Dublin in 1919.
Fianna Fáil was in power from 1997 to 2011, when it suffered the humiliation of going cap in hand to the IMF for a bailout. It will argue that it had to make the difficult fiscal decisions, including cuts to public services and state sector jobs, that helped to balance the nation’s books, and that Fine Gael and Labour have merely continued to implement the same policies.
Sinn Féin, the Socialist Party and alliances such as People Before Profit will stress that the recovery has left a vast section of Irish society behind, and that the pain of austerity was not shared equally. They will point to the fact that none of the most senior bankers who recklessly lent billions to property speculators during the boom years has served a day in jail, while people who refuse to pay recently introduced water charges are being sent to prison. Water charges will be a particular issue in working-class districts, where voters are expected to punish Labour for its part in introducing them. This issue could be Joan Burton’s nemesis, but she will be a candidate for taoiseach if she survives – as she showed she can when her boat turned turtle.
The 2011 general election saw the near total wipe-out of Fianna Fáil, who were blamed for economic impotence in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Fianna Fáil went from 71 seats in the Dial to 20. The party’s share of the first preference vote in the PR election fell to just 17.5%. Fine Gael was the biggest winner, going from 51 seats to 76. Labour, too, had a good election, with its seat numbers increasing from 20 to 37, leaving the new coalition with a comfortable majority. Sinn Féin also nearly trebled its number of seats to 14.
The number of seats available in this 2016 election has been cut from 166 to 158. As a result, the number of seats required for an outright majority will be 80, down from 84.
Political scientists, tallymen, pundits and bookmakers believe Enda Kenny will be returned to power, albeit reliant this time on the support of independent TDs to shore up his second government. The likely scenario is that Fine Gael will be returned once more as the largest party in the Dial but will be short of numbers to govern alone. However, one grizzled veteran political analyst on the ground, Scot John Cooney, thinks this will be the election when Gerry Adams’ and Sinn Fein’s day will come at last: 'and I’ll be heading for the exit,' he said.
This is despite the fact that Adams had to be bailed out by his finance spokesperson, Glasgow-born Pease Doherty, after he appeared to find difficulty in explaining aspects of Sinn Fein's tax policies when pressed on the subject in a radio interview. Doherty dismissed the suggestion that Adams was becoming a liability to the party saying: 'Gerry Adams has led this party for many, many years. Sinn Fein are nearly doubling their support so far in terms of opinion polls in the support we've received over the last five years and that is down to the leadership of Gerry Adams'.
In that case the women will have to await their opportunities on the sidelines and those leftist policies, which the leaders of the 1916 Rising gave their lives for, will once again be consigned to the Liffey.