Irish Election Deadlock Poses Dilemma for Old Civil War Foes

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A century after Irish rebels fought British troops on the streets of Dublin, the country’s two biggest political parties must decide if they can forget history and learn to work together.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, whose founders fought each other in a civil war that raged after the 1916 uprising, won about 50 percent of votes in a Feb. 26 general election. With the ruling coalition losing its majority and no clear constellation of allies gaining enough support to govern, a first-ever grand coalition between the two former enemies looks like the only viable option for a stable government.

The potential combination emerged after voters routed the outgoing Fine Gael-led government in a reminder of the enduring fallout from the country’s 2008 crash. Yet while Ireland faces the kind of political stasis that’s roiled Spain and Portugal this year if the groups don’t combine, historical rancor and fears of how voters will respond will have to be overcome if an alliance is to be formed.

“The only two-party coalition that works on paper is Fine Gael and Fianna Fail,” said Philip O’Sullivan, an economist in Dublin with Investec Plc. “From Fianna Fail’s perspective, it is set to achieve the greatest comeback since Lazarus, nearly doubling its seats from the last election.”

By 7.35 a.m. on Monday in Dublin, 148 of the 158 seats had been filled. Kenny’s Fine Gael had 47 seats, Fianna Fail had 43, with Sinn Fein taking 22. The Labour Party had 6, down from 37 in 2011. Some 79 seats are needed for a majority.

Since Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny swept into power in 2011, Irish bonds have returned about 92 percent, the best performance in the world, and before the election, the Fine Gael leader warned of the dangers of an inconclusive outcome.

The spread between benchmark bonds and German securities of a similar maturity increased to 76 basis points from 44 basis points six weeks ago, as uncertainty mounted over the election.

As the votes were counted, Kenny and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin both left open the possibility of a deal, though lawmakers from both sides expressed reservations. Business leaders called for stability, as threats including the possibility that the U.K. could leave the European Union loom.

“I would like to see a strong government so we don’t take things for granted,” Fiona Muldoon, chief executive officer at insurer FBD Holdings Plc, told reporters on Monday.

Parliament is due to choose a prime minister on March 10, and serious negotiations will only probably begin once that session fails to produce a winner. One alternative to a formal coalition would see Fianna Fail backing a minority Kenny administration before bringing it down at a time of its choosing.

“Fianna Fail will have a much stronger bargaining position,” said Eoin O’Malley, a politics lecturer at Dublin City University. “It won’t be locked in. It could then vote against the government when it pleased.”

Few differences exist between the two parties. Both parties respect European rules limiting the country’s budget deficit and vow to protect the nation’s 12.5 percent corporate tax rate.

Guerrilla War

What separates them is history. Both parties’ founders were part of a pro-independence movement that waged a guerrilla war against Britain after the 1916 rising. A peace treaty five years later that partitioned the country triggered a bitter conflict between the Irish who supported the deal and those who opposed it. Fine Gael emerged from organizations that supported the accord, while Fianna Fail members fought against it.

Fine Gael’s predecessors formed the first government of the independent state amid the bloodshed. Anti-Treaty forces assassinated one of their leaders, Michael Collins, while the fledgling administration responded with scores of executions.

The enmity over “the Treaty” divided Irish society endured long after the Civil War ended in 1923. During the 1930s, Fianna Fail members at one point entered parliament with pistols in their pockets, in case the then-incumbent party — that later became Fine Gael — refused to hand over power.

“It’s nearly time we forgot about the Civil War and got on with the interests of the country,” said Mick Shivnan, who drives a tour bus around Dublin’s 1916 historical sites dressed in the military garb of an Irish rebel from that era. “You can’t be living in the past all the time.”

 

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