Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The people have spoken - but what did they say?

Michael Burke: The first clear message of the 2011 election was a rejection of Fianna Fáil, receiving just 17.4% of the first preference vote – also of over 24% of the entire electorate. Given that the unlamented PDs had also been effectively absorbed by FF, and the Greens (who stayed just long enough to help through a draconian budget, but not a weak climate change bill) were also obliterated, there was effectively 30% of the electorate in motion.

Fine Gael was not the main, or even the primary, beneficiary of that dramatic break with FF, receiving just 8.8% of that 30% compared to the 2007 election. The primary beneficiary was Labour, up 9.3%. But the main beneficiary was a generic Left, comprising Labour, Sinn Féin, a majority of the ‘Independents’ and the smaller socialist parties. The combined FF/FG/Green/PD vote in 2007 was 76.3%. That fell to 55.3% in 2011. The combined Labour/Sinn Féin/socialist vote rose from 17.6% to approximately 43% (depending on how many you assign to the Left from among the Independents’ vote).

So, there was a sharp turn towards the Left, but not an outright victory for it. 43% is not 50%.

The key issue was clearly the economy, and the election was held against the backdrop of the recent arrival of the EU/IMF representatives in Ireland, to dictate terms of the bailout of the EU banks. Given that FF was the main architect of the response to the economic crisis and presided over the arrival of the raiding party, then voters were clearly rejecting more of the same. A key aspect of the campaign, and probable determinant of the outcome, was the parties’ attitude towards the terms of that bailout and the further imposition of cuts in public spending to underwrite it. (In another post, the issue of the viability of that programme will be addressed).

In that regard, every single party that stood in the campaign, bar the outgoing coalition partners, argued that that they would at least ‘renegotiate’ the bailout deal. Both FG and Labour spokespeople argued that point repeatedly in the course of the campaign, with Enda Kenny in particular promoting his party’s ties with EU counterparts as the best way to achieve a renegotiation.

Now, it appears from the weekend reports of the EU summit that no such renegotiation is currently possible. Under attack over the 12.5% corporate tax rate, the new Taoiseach and his team seem on the defensive. In any event, the suggested quid-pro-quo of a 1% reduction on the EU portion of the bailout funds would yield a saving of only €450mn per annum. While this is not nothing, it is overwhelmed by the public spending cuts and the bank bailout, the latest installment of €10bn likely to be paid before the month is out.

This payout highlights a clear anomaly in the outcome of the election and the intransigence of the EU leaders, some of whom seem more concerned with their own future tied to the outcome of regional elections or with bombing Libya. Yet, at the election, more than 75% of the population voted for parties or individuals who stood on a platform of renegotiating the deal. The voters of have spoken – but the EU refuses to listen.

Therefore the only reasonable response is to make the same case in a more forceful way. There should be a referendum on the bailout of EU banks by Irish taxpayers, with a rejection obliging a full renegotiation. Then perhaps the EU will listen.


Paul Hunt said...


I'm afraid you'll just have to accept it; the 'left' - however broadly defined - did not secure a plurality at the election. And, given the integrity of the quarrels on the left, even if it had, it is doubtful it would have been able to deliver stable, coherent governance. Labour had its chance 6 months ago (while FG was still divided and doubts continued to be nursed about the electability of its leader) to capture the liberal, progressive centre and it blew it.

We have a long-standing parliamentary democracy with government in, and of, parliament. It may not work as well as it should and the poisoned legacy of colonisation has hindered the emergence of the centre-right/centre-left competing power blocs (found in other mature, developed democracies), but it generally delivers stable and coherent governance.

It is for this government to engage with our EU partners (subject to the direction of the Dail). Seeking to make the case for an unnecessary referendum is a blatant attempt to overturn the democratic mandate this government has secured.

Michael Burke said...


The piece makes two points, 1) that the Left made very substantial gains but did not form a majority, and, 2) that the overwhelming majority of the electorate voted for parties that said they were in favour of renegotiaton, or more radical measures.

Point 1) was already made. The value of your repeating it is questionable. But point 2) is ignored altogether. The governing parties obtained a majority partly or mainly on the platform of renegotiaton. That is a key plank of their democratic mandate.

This state is not a parliamentary democracy, meaning that the Dail is the sovereign power. That is an elementary error. The Constitution states that 'all power is derived, under God, from the people'. That is why there have been numerous referanda, the people are held to be sovereign, not parliament.

Therefore, calling for one is entirely legitimate- you'll just have to accept it.

Slí Eile said...

@Michael A Referendum is a good and necessary idea. The first step should be a thorough, timely and transparent audit of assets and debts across the entire financial sector and not merely another 'stress test' on top of previous discredited ones. Step two a referendum. Step three hard negotiating with co-responsibility among debtors and creditors. Our strong card is foreign bank exposure to Irish bank loans. The most recent Bank of International Settlement Quarterly Review shows a total exposure of €813.7billion of which €224.6 and €208.3bn, respectively, from British and German banks. (page 15 of BIS Quarterly Review March at http://www.bis.org/publ/qtrpdf/r_qt1103.pdf)

Paul Hunt said...


I agree that the people, constitutionally and quite rightly, exercise ultimate authority, but they delegate this authority to TDs between elections to elect a government which conducts the day-to-day governance of the state between elections within the bounds established by the Constitution - subject to scrutiny by, and the consent of, the Dail (which unfortunately is the part of the apparatus of governance that has failed so absysmally - and needs major reform).

The people, again quite rightly, are asked to decide in a referendum when a change to the provisions or prohibitions in the Constitution is required or proposed.

With the governing parties having secured a clear plurality of first preference votes, this government, with 2/3 of the seats in the Dail, has all the mandate it requires to engage with our EU partners to secure the best deal for Ireland - and is being recognised by our EU partners as having such a mandate.

There is absolutely no requirement to shore up this mandate or to constrain its exercise of this mandate using the blunt instrument of a referendum. Whatever resolution of this EU banking and sovereign debt crisis will emerge eventually will be crafted, unfortunately but inevitably, by means of political horse-trading. That will require a combination of firmness, flexibility and imagination on the part of the government - and also an appreciation of how our EU partners view Ireland.

Your are perfectly entitled to make the case for a referendum, but I happen to believe it is entirely wrong-headed. I would also suggest that Irish citizens should make some effort to try to understand the position of voters in our EU partner countries whom we are seeking to persuade to share some of this burden with us.

In my view, forceful confrontation
will serve us ill.

And, Sli, I'm not sure about those BIS figure as they may include EZ banks operating in the IFSC for which their home country parents are responsible and not Ireland. Just worth a check, as the net exposures in the Irish bailiwick may be some what smaller.