Meath East And The Future Direction Of Irish Politics

Irish politics is in a great state of flux. Nothing is quite certain and the positions keep changing. After being fairly rigid and predictable since 1932, it was burst apart in the earthquake election of 2011 and things have yet to settle back into place. Every opinion poll shows the sudden rise or fall of another party, but failing to add much clarity to the situation. This is why the Meath East by-election is useful as it allows us to take stock of the situation and give us a rough idea of where things stand and what direction Irish politics is heading.

(Apologies to my non-Irish readers, you will have no idea what I’m talking about. I considered trying to add explanations, but that would be far too difficult so I’ll have to leave you in the dark. Also apologies for being so quiet on the blog this month, essays are killing me, but it’ll pick up again in April before going quiet for May exams.)

First, it is important to remember that the by election is not representative of the state of the country and we’re only getting a rough idea. The by election was caused by the death of Shane McEntee who committed suicide. Fine Gael nominated his daughter Helen, who naturally captured the large sympathy vote, which certainly helped her win. Second of all, by elections are prone to large protest votes and this is the first time a government has won a by election in 30 years (the election of Patrick Nulty doesn’t really count as he resigned almost immediately). They are a chance for people to voice discontent at government policies, without the danger of electing a new government. This is especially important as our current government is the 2nd most unpopular government since polling began (the last crowd being the worst). There is a lot of anger at broken promises, austerity and the banks that would be expected to be vented at the ballots.

It only slightly exaggerates the situation
It only slightly exaggerates the situation

The first noticeable feature of the by lection was the abysmal turnout of only 38%. This is one of the worst in the history of Irish democracy and almost half the general election vote of 66% in Meath East. Part of the reason is the atrocious weather (it even snowed on polling day) and the decision to hold the election mid week, as well as the fact by elections always have lower turnouts due to less publicity. However, even taking these factors into account, the result is terrible. It is a sign of how disillusioned people are with politics and how they see little hope from any party. Few voters can see any difference between the major parties, which have essentially the same platform. People have little faith in the government and even less in the opposition.

But as they say, you have to vote to be counted, so what do the votes tell us about Irish politics?

Fine Gael

This by election couldn’t have gone any better for Fine Gael. Despite implementing hugely unpopular measures, they have hardly lost any support. True there was a sympathy vote element, but that should have been cancelled by the protest vote. So despite the anger at broken promises and government caving to the banks, to say nothing of the abortion debate, Fine Gael are essentially unscratched. The main reason is that there is no real threat to them. There is no party to the right of them to steal the middle class vote, so their supporters are essentially stuck. Of course there are supporters who love austerity too and those who being a blueshirt is an inherited gene like blue eyes.

The results from the 2011 general election
The results from the 2011 general election


Labour suffered a complete meltdown similar to the PDs in 2007 and the Greens in 2011. Three quarters of their vote was wiped out in one of their worst ever defeats. The entirety of the government’s anger has been directed solely at them. This is a bit unfair, Fine Gale is just as guilty, if not more so for breaking promises and cutbacks. But smaller parties always suffer in coalitions and Labour has always lost support after going into coalition with Fine Gael. One explanation is that people knew that Fine Gael would promote austerity, whereas Labour voters genuinely taught Eamon Gilmore would oppose it. The emphasis on Labour could be because people think/taught Labour has a conscience whereas Fine Gael is a lost cause. Unless serious change occurs Labour is facing an electoral slaughter where it will lose all its 2011 gains and more.

The results from the by-election
The results from the by-election

Fianna Fáil

Like the villain in a lazy sequel, Fianna Fáil has inexplicably returned to its former strength. Its party vote has almost doubled in two years and regained its position as challenger to Fine Gael. In 2011 people were wondering if it would survive, now it looks likely it will be in the next government. It is the government’s fault the scourge of Fianna Fáil has not been destroyed. By implementing the exact same policies as the last Fianna Fáil government, Fine Gael and Labour have legitimised Fianna Fáil. Their former voters can slowly return to them safe in the knowledge that they are not making any great leap.

How they are gaining votes is a mystery to me as their current policies are nothing more than rank hypocrisy and sheer opportunism. They oppose the cutbacks they themselves introduced while forgetting that they are partially responsible for the recession (though it has to be said that were Fine Gael and Labour in power during the Celtic Tiger, the result would be the same). It’s sickening to see the return of gombeen politics and is causing me to lose hope for Irish politics.





Fine Gael






Fianna Fáil



Sinn Fein



Direct Democracy






Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin has completely failed to take advantage of the opportunities to grow into a major political force. As the only party to seriously oppose austerity, they should be tapping into the enormous amount of anger among the electorate. They should be soaring in the polls with 20%+. They have an open goal and yet are struggling to score. They increased their vote from 9% to 13% which would be good in normal times but these are not normal times. Politics has been rigid for the last 80 years; we are in a temporary period of flux before the window of opportunity closes. Sinn Féin should be gaining huge support just as Fine Gael and Labour did under the last government. That they cannot grow even under such golden conditions makes me wonder if they can ever break out of niche party status and become a major political force. It seems that people just don’t take them seriously and the legacy of the IRA hasn’t gone away.

Direct Democracy Ireland

Three weeks hardly anyone knew Direct Democracy Ireland even existed, yet it has had great success even beating the Labour Party. It’s hard to judge it as no one really knows what exactly it is or stands for. I think direct democracy as practiced in Switzerland is a great idea and a superior and more accountable form of democracy. I’m just not so sure about this group. Unfortunately a lot of these new parties are run by loons in old cardigans, though it’s too early to tell if DDI fits this category. Their website is very vague and all I can tell is that they dislike the bailout and cutbacks. Their candidate Ben Gilroy is a Freeman, a wacky kind of anarchist group which refuses to recognise the law. They believe that you must personally agree to laws before they can affect you. Not exactly the kind of people I place much hope in rescuing Ireland from this crisis.

So that’s the state of Irish politics. The same old crowd is holding strong and their policies of austerity will continue unchallenged. Fianna Fáil is regaining a lot of its old strength while Fine Gael holds steady. Labour collapses and Sinn Fein stays small. The problem with Irish politics is that there is a serious lack of a real alternative. People can hardly be blamed for making a bad choice when the menu is so bad. I can’t see where Irish politics will head next, but all the roads are bad. The only way seems to be backwards.

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