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Editorial Ireland's election indicates big changes ahead

EXIT polls in the election to the Dáil Éireann indicate a surge in support for the left-of-centre Sinn Fein, mainly at the expense of the two right-wing parties that have dominated the Irish Republic’s politics for 70 years and more. 

The electoral system for the Dublin parliament's lower house is based on a Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies. As a result, it produces an elected chamber which broadly reflects the preferences of the voters, including support for smaller parties such as Solidarity — People Before Profit and the Labour Party.

But the multiple counts also mean that all the results may not be in for a day or two yet, while close margins between the main parties are likely to result in extensive horse-trading before a governing coalition can be formed.

In any event, the electors have spoken and made clear their concerns about the dire social problems which persist in one of Europe's fastest-growing economies.

Ireland's complex health system cannot cope with the growing number of patients, as hundreds lie on trolleys in emergency departments because there are fewer hospital beds now than 10 years ago. The introduction of a part-free, part-fee National Health Service alongside a large private sector has so far failed to meet people’s aspirations and they are punishing Fine Gael Taoiseach Leo Varadkar accordingly.

Next on the list of popular concerns is housing and homelessness. The economic fallout of the 2007-8 financial crash hit the Irish Republic particularly hard and was made all the worse by the drastic austerity cuts demanded in 2010 by the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. 

Housebuilding came to a halt and the scarce supply has doubled house prices in Dublin and other urban centres. With little public and social sector housing available, private landlords are making a killing. Sinn Fein and Labour propose a rent freeze, which the chief opposition party Fianna Fail claims would be “unconstitutional,” while Varadkar’s Fine Gael merely freezes.

Other issues to emerge at the hustings before Saturday’s vote were pensions, the reformed water industry and — to the clear benefit of the Green Party — climate change.

But it is the near-doubling of support for Sinn Fein which is grabbing the headlines in Britain as well as Ireland.

The party fought the Dail Eireann elections on a manifesto radical enough to draw condemnation from the Irish Business and Employers Confederation. IBEC fears the prospect of the rich and big business paying higher taxes to fund public-sector investment in housing and childcare and restoration of the state pension age to 65.

Nor was the party shy about Irish unity. While most southern Irish politicians prefer to stay silent on the question, proposals for an all-island Citizens Assembly and north and south referendums comprised the lead item in Sinn Fein’s manifesto.

Nor did Giving workers & Families a break — A Manifesto for Change pull many punches when it came to the European Union. It opposed the EU trade deals which undermine democracy, workers’ rights and environmental security and condemned Irish participation in new EU and Nato military structures, while pledging to restore Irish sovereignty in foreign policy and defence affairs.

How this can be achieved by “radically reforming” the EU was not spelt out.

Nonetheless, with polls putting Sinn Fein far ahead of the other parties among young people and Brexit demonstrating the logic of Irish reunification — as former leader Gerry Adams said it would — the party’s future looks brighter today.

Whichever Dublin government emerges from the horse-trading, the issues raised by Sinn Fein — and the Communist Party of Ireland — are not going away anytime soon.

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