Can a government be re-elected after imposing harsh austerity on its citizens? If you were to pick one to succeed, it would surely be Enda Kenny’s centre-right coalition in Ireland. It came to power in 2011 and pushed through big cuts in welfare, health, education and policing. It raised taxes and raided pension funds. But over the past year, the Irish economy has palpably improved. Growth is the highest in the European Union. Emigration has slowed down. At least in Dublin and the other main cities, the buzz of boomtime Ireland is back.
The governing Fine Gael and Labour parties are promising to reverse some of the tax increases and begin to repair the damage to public services. Their pitch is simple: as Kenny repeats in his carefully crafted mantra, “Keep the recovery going”. It should be a persuasive pitch, especially when coupled with explicit threats that, without the steady hand of the governing parties, Ireland would face Greek-style economic chaos and Spanish-style political gridlock. And yet it doesn’t seem to be working. Polls suggest the governing parties will lose a lot of seats and their majority in parliament in this week’s election.
Something about the government’s story is not adding up for the majority of the electorate. Its narrative is the classic tale of virtue rewarded: by cutting spending, the government regained the trust of the financial markets and international institutions, and everything got better. Ireland seems like a fine performer in the morality play of austerity. In response to the banking crisis, its voters in 2011 kicked out the long-dominant Fianna Fáil party, which had inflated a bubble economy of bad banks and crazy house prices. But they didn’t flock to a Syriza or a Podemos. They took their punishment.
They elected Fianna Fáil’s almost identical twin, Kenny’s conservative Fine Gael, in coalition with a Labour party that made radical noises in opposition but then settled quite comfortably into the job of implementing austerity. The public complained bitterly, and there were sustained protests about water charges, but the bailout programme agreed by the previous government with the International Monetary Fund, the European commission and the European Central Bank was pushed through successfully. It was a horrible mixture of meanness (slashing support for carers and people with disabilities, for example) and astonishing generosity (a policy of “no bondholder left behind” in which investors who gambled on reckless Irish banks were repaid in full from the public purse). But the government pressed on relentlessly.
And, in narrow terms, obedience was indeed rewarded. Ireland exited the eurozone bailout programme at the end of 2013 and austerity started to wind down the following year. Even if Ireland’s GDP figures are inflated by the shenanigans of tax-avoiding multinational corporations, no one doubts that the economy has greatly improved.
So Ireland confessed its sins, did severe penance and is now again in a state of grace with the international institutions and financial markets. All that remains is for the government that made what the ideologues of austerity love to call “tough choices” to ascend into the heaven of vindication and re-election.
Why, then, does it seem so earthbound? It is not as if the government faces a united and coherent opposition. Ranged against it are Fianna Fáil, which has yet to recover from its drubbing in 2011, and a raft of leftwing groups, ranging from Sinn Féin to the small but vigorous Trotskyist parties, to the Greens and the new Social Democrats and various single-issue independents.
Sinn Féin, which is well financed and formidably organised, would love to be in government on both sides of the Irish border in the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. It has made huge inroads on Labour’s support in working-class areas and will gain a lot of seats. But Gerry Adams is still in charge and the party is carrying too much baggage from its IRA past to get beyond 20% of the vote. For the same reason, none of the other parties is expressing a willingness to join Sinn Féin in a coalition government after the election.
All of this means that, in a fragmenting political system, there is no obvious alternative to Kenny as taoiseach. He is able to frame the election as a choice between stability (represented of course by himself) and the chaos of a ragbag of opposition forces.
His problem is that a majority of voters seem to be translating “stability” into “more of the same”. In a year when the centenary of the Easter Rising raises awkward questions about what Irish society was supposed to look like after independence, the public values implicit in the last five years don’t look especially attractive. For much of that period, Ireland effectively became a protectorate of the international institutions, strictly supervised from Washington, Brussels and Frankfurt. Scarce Irish public resources were diverted to the great cause of saving the euro – with little recompense from the EU. The poor and the weak paid the heaviest price: Kenny’s government introduced five budgets and each one was regressive in its social impact. Even in an existential crisis, the distribution of privilege has been serenely undisturbed.
Moreover, when does austerity really stop? For Irish voters the reality is that austerity doesn’t suddenly end when a government ceases to cut spending. There is a legacy of deep damage to public services and to society. Cuts have left the police struggling to get to grips with gangland violence. The health service is in crisis, with chaotic overcrowding and very long waiting lists. Cuts to education are showing in the children of austerity: among 16- to 19-year-olds Ireland now ranks 18th of 23 OECD countries in literacy, and 21st in numeracy. Child poverty has almost doubled. Homelessness has spiralled out of control.
This kind of stability is not quite as alluring as the governing parties seem to think. It doesn’t feel like a just reward for all the pain endured. And the very modest increases in social spending being proposed by the government don’t seem adequate to the task of rebuilding a decent state, let alone a real republic.
The chances are that Ireland won’t, after all, be the political success story that the European centre-right, unnerved by the migrant crisis and the threat of Brexit, so badly needs. Democracies everywhere are experiencing turbulence as the relentless rise of inequality undermines the authority of states that claim to value all citizens equally. Why should Ireland be a unique island of calm in this ocean of uncertainty?
Fintan O'Toole is assistant editor of the Irish Times and author of Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Killed the Celtic Tiger.