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Ireland’s Parliament Fails to Elect a New Prime Minister

Ireland's new parliament met for the first time since the general election on Feb. 26 but failed to elect a new prime minister

Ireland’s new parliament – the 32nd Dáil Éireann – which met on Thursday for the first time since the general election on Feb. 26, has failed to elect a new prime minister.

The 158 Teachtaí Dála – TDs or Irish Members of Parliament – rejected all four candidates for the position of Taoiseach, Ireland’s prime minister.

The incumbent Taoiseach, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny came closest of the four, but his appointment was defeated by 94 votes to 57.

Kenny told the Dáil he would tell the President he no longer has majority support and offer his resignation as Taoiseach. It is likely he will be asked to stay on as acting Taoiseach until another vote is held, RTÉ reports.

“The Government and I will continue to carry out our duties until a new Government is elected,” he said.

What happens next?

After much debate, the Dáil voted to adjourned until Tuesday, March 22, leaving plenty of time for inter-party discussions on government formation.

The complex and what some have called “fragmented” election result means the composition of the next government is difficult to predict.

Among the possibilities is a minority government. This approach, although common across Europe, is anathema to most Irish politicians.

A seemingly unlikely alternative is a “grand coalition” of the two giants of Irish politics – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – two parties whose rivalry goes back to the internecine civil war of the 1920s, an animosity that makes a coalition of the two a politically difficult maneuver.

The two parties share broadly similar political stances – Fianna Fáil is a center-right party and Fine Gael more overtly right-wing – but a coalition would signal a fundamental change in Irish politics.

Both parties, however, are keen to keep the burgeoning Sinn Féin from becoming the leaders of the opposition, making already-difficult decisions about government even more fraught.

Other coalition combinations aimed at creating a majority government would involve complex arrangements between a number of smaller parties and independents and most commentators see this as unlikely. For now.

Ceann Comhairle elected

Earlier Thursday, the Dáil elected a new chairperson, the Ceann Comhairle – literally “head of the council.”

For the first time, the election was carried out by secret ballot using Ireland’s complex PR-STV system. Fianna Fáil’s Seán Ó Fearghaíl was elected on the fifth count.

The Ceann Comhairle does not usually participate in parliamentary votes but uses a casting vote when required.

Election results

Ireland’s general election produced one of the most complex results since the foundation of the state.

The vote for the traditional “parties of government” – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour – fell to never-before-seen levels.

Other than party policy differences, a significant number of high-profile TD retirements, a reduction by eight in the total number of seats contested, and constituency boundary changes contributed to the result.

The parties of the previous coalition government – Fine Gael and Labour – saw their vote substantially reduced from 2011’s election, mainly due to the parties’ implementation of austerity measures insisted upon by the so-called Troika – the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – which, as lenders of last resort, gave Ireland a way out of its financial crisis.

Fine Gael’s message – “Let’s keep the recovery going” – was badly received by voters, many of whom feel the country’s much-vaunted (and much-debated) financial recovery does not touch them.

Labour’s traditional core – working class voters – deserted them and elected other, more left-wing candidates. It appears that working- and middle-class voters perceived Labour as implementing austerity policies and not acting in their best interests.

In this election overtly (and subtly) left-wing candidates and parties made strong gains, perhaps indicating a shift from the politics of the Civil War to a more defined left-right battleground.

irish-election-results-march-2016

Fine Gael’s first preference vote dropped by 11 percent. The strongly conservative party saw its representation in parliament drop from 76 seats to 50.

The center-left Labour Party’s vote dropped by 13 percent and its seat tally fell from 37 to just seven, the worst election result in the party’s history.

Center-right Fianna Fáil saw an increase in votes of 7 percent and an increase in seats from 21 to 44. Although the party has bounced back from its 2011 electoral mauling over its handling of Ireland’s financial crisis, this result still represents the party’s second-worst election performance ever.

The left-wing Sinn Féin party, an growing force in Irish politics, saw its representation increase from 14 seats to 23. The party is somewhat burdened by its association with the Provisional Irish Republican Army, not least because its leader, Gerry Adams, is from north of the border and has fielded accusations of IRA membership for many years.

Smaller parties and independents gained significantly in this election and their votes may be crucial during the term of the 32nd Dáil. They comprise new parties like the Social Democrats, the left-wing anti-austerity party AAA-PBP, groupings of independents and others.

Ireland’s “It’s complicated” electoral system

The variance in the percentage of first preference votes to seats won is due to Ireland’s complex proportional representation with a single transferable vote (PR–STV) electoral system.

In PR-STV, voters rank the candidates in order of preference, and each ballot can pass from candidate to candidate they are elected or eliminated. The idea of this system is that the number of seats won by each party or group should be proportional to the number of votes cast for them, but a focus on local issues, the relatively small size of constituencies, and the national strength of the major parties can affect the outcome substantially.

Historical context

This general election has unusual significance because 2016 is the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, a six-day rebellion by around 1,200 republicans against British rule. This is a seminal event in modern Irish history which led to increased nationalism and eventual independence.

More than 450 people died and around 3,000 were injured during the Rising, but the executions of 16 people by the British – almost the entire rebel leadership – saw public opinion shift dramatically and the movement for Irish independence from Britain became established, and the formation of the Irish Republican Army and its political wing, Sinn Féin.

The Irish state itself did not officially come into being until the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 after a three-year guerrilla war between the IRA and the British. The treaty led to the partition of the island into Ireland and Northern Ireland, followed in 1949 by the declaration of a fully independent Republic of Ireland.

Partition led to a civil war between IRA comrades, leading to the political split which resulted in the eventual creation of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two political parties which have governed Ireland since the state’s foundation.

(Image: Ireland’s Dáil chamber – AnCatDubh/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

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