Before you think I’m going to give you my two cents on the Trump debacle going down in my homeland, I’ll let you know that this post is about the Irish general election that took place this week, not the American one that’s taking place in November and already embarrassing Americans world-wide.
Now that you know what to expect, let’s move on…
I know that the American media is neck-deep in the Donald, and that the British media is busy fretting over possible secession from Europe; but I do find it interesting that on both sides of the Atlantic, the Irish election was more or less completely ignored.
When it comes to Irish politics we’re like:
“Oh…what? Our neighbors had an election? How cute…”
Seriously, out of the Americans and Brits that know that Ireland is a sovereign nation, independent of the UK, how many us know who the Taoiseach currently is, or for that matter, how to pronounce Taoiseach?
I’ve been subjected to years of history lessons courtesy of C, but I still have a lot left to learn, and being here for the election was highly educational.
So, what has the Yank learned about Irish politics?
1. There are two parties that hate each other
Now this I can understand. My country’s two main political parties hate each other too! But while the antipathy between American Republicans and Democrats really only began to be noticeable in the 80s and frightening in the 00s, the rivalry between Ireland’s Fianna Fáil (pronounced Feena Fall) and Fine Gael (pronounced Finna Gale) started from their conception.
Rooted in the painful politics of the Irish Civil War, the division is deep and tensions run high. The only time they believe they’re on common ground is when opposing Sinn Féin.
The funny thing is, policy-wise, they are not very different at all. Where Republicans and Democrats in the States differ wildly on social justice, economy, and finance, both Irish mega-parties are generally conservative and centrist. Young people I’ve talked to see the divide as absurd, and some even think they should just be mashed into one big party.
2. There are a plethora of other little parties that have no chance.
Again, so similar to what I’m used to! The Green Party, The Workers Party, Labour, Renua…a host of small opposition parties have arisen to contest the dominance of the two giants, but have little chance of getting anywhere.
Unlike in America though, a vote for a member of these parties is NOT a wasted vote, due to the Irish Single Transferable Vote system. Essentially, what it means is that voters get to mark down who their 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice for office would be. If their first choice doesn’t get in, their second choice gets their vote.
If America had this system, we might not have had George W. Bush. Thanks again, Ralph.
3. The youth are systematically disenfranchised
Due to its crappy economy and probably also to its crappy weather, 1 out of every 6 Irish-born are living abroad, with the figure much higher among the youth. So what does this mean for politics?
Unlike in the states, there is no possibility of voting from abroad. A lack of young people voting generally keeps a country’s laws and law-makers conservative. Ireland just got divorce in 1995 (1995!) and it still isn’t legal to have an abortion. What would it take to change these laws? Getting the young people back home to vote, as was illustrated when they turned up in droves to vote for the Marriage Equality referendum in 2015.
But of course, to give the young people the right to vote from abroad, there would need to be a vote to that effect, and they can’t vote from abroad, so…
4. Women are included by quota
Traditionally, women have played a behind-the-scenes role in politics, with both major parties running very few women as candidates; BUT there’s a new law that states that all parties have to have at least 30% female candidates in a general election or risk losing part of their public funding. Don’t worry, the law also states that 30% must be male (presumably to protect men from the future feminist take-over?) .
5. There are political dynasties
I thought Americans were the only ones with the likes of the Kennedys and the Clintons in control. Turns out though that Ireland has its own family dynasties, they just play on a smaller, more local scale. It’s extremely common for sons and daughters of local politicians to take their daddy’s seat in the Dail. No, they’re not given the seat, but apparently if your father was in politics you are uniquely qualified for the job in the eyes of the electorate.
6. The far right has little support
Phew! Renua, a right-wing party started by the defection of its leader from Fine Gael due to her staunchly anti-abortion position, touts itself as being “a new party for a new Ireland,” and proposes policies like mandatory minimums that are clearly FAILING back home. Luckily, the Irish people didn’t buy it, as was made clear when Renua closed the day without winning a single seat. New Ireland, you’re safe.
7. The far left has little support
A true country of moderates, it seems the Irish voter doesn’t trust extremes on either side of the divide. Preferring the two big F’s, they didn’t just leave Renua behind; Leftist parties like the Workers Party, Labor, the Social Democrats, and the Anti-Austerity Alliance also won very few seats. Leftist politics are typically urban, and Ireland, with its capital city of only a half a million people, just isn’t an urban country.
8. There are parades
As we left C‘s parents’ house on the day the results were announced, they were discussing the potential parade route. I thought they were discussing the local Saint Patrick’s Day parade, but as usual, I was wrong.
Apparently, when a candidate wins they and their supporters take to the streets, driving along country roads and stopping off at local businesses that are known supporters. On our way back to town that night we actually passed one of the parades. It snaked along, bumper to bumper, much like a funeral parade except for the Fianna Fáil banner on the first vehicle and the smiles on the faces of the drivers.
9. There are bonfires
Coming from Oregon, I tend to view any visible funnels of smoke as alarming would-be wildfires. On the night the results were announced though, smoke plumes dotted the countryside, beacons for the candidates out on parade. I guess after the long wet winter, they’re unlikely to start a wildfire, so I’ll let it go.
10. After it’s all over, there still might not be a functioning government
The Presidential system has its faults. We’re stuck with the president that we get for the full four years, barring impeachment, and a president with a congress made up of a majority opposition can’t get anything done. (Cough cough, Supreme Court nominations.) But the parliamentary system of Ireland has its own issues.
Neither of the large parties have won enough seats to form a government alone, and they definitely don’t want to play together, so the Irish electorate just may find themselves back in the polling booths in a few months time.
All in all, this Yank has learned that politics in Ireland is just as messed up as everywhere else.