As the London Times observed, the “mathematical complexities associated with the single transferable vote” system of proportional representation meant that the final results of last Friday’s Irish general election weren’t known until today, but as early as Election Night it was clear that Prime Minister Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fail Party had earned a remarkable victory. The party came within a hair of winning an overall majority in the Irish parliament and will almost certainly continue to govern in coalition with the Progressive Democrats. Fianna Fail’s traditional rivals Fine Gael and the Labor Party suffered significant losses, while the Greens, Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA), and independents fared well.
The Irish Examiner declared: “The election results were undoubtedly a victory for the outgoing government. For the first time ever, the two main parties in a coalition have increased their seats.” Canada’s National Post attributed the government’s re-election to its “low-tax, less-regulation, pro-growth policies” and to Ireland’s economic growth over the past decade: “Irish incomes, for instance, were nearly a third lower than Canadian ones a decade ago, now they are one-fifth higher.” The Irish Independent gave the credit to the prime minister: “[T]he biggest story of the 2002 general election is the story of Bertie Ahern. … Granted, he has been lucky to lead the country in boom times; lucky, too, in the divisions and failures of the opposition. But he has solid achievements on his record. The peace process and the tax-cutting programme are the monuments of his first administration.” The Irish Times agreed: “The single most important factor in the broadening of the party’s appeal has been Bertie Ahern. Sold by the party during the campaign more as charismatic celebrity than sober political leader, Mr Ahern’s personal appeal and popularity went way beyond the confines of his own party.”
The meltdown of the traditional opposition was seen as a major political realignment. The Irish Times declared, “Fine Gael didn’t suffer an ebbing tide; it was caught in a maelstrom and torn asunder.” The Financial Times explained this as a function of history: “[W]ith the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland, the sterile distinctions between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, based on which side they took in the Irish Civil War of the 1920s, no longer apply.” The Irish Times fretted about Fine Gael’s collapse: “In the long run, that is not good for democracy. A vibrant democracy and a fully accountable parliament should comprise more than a strong centrist bloc with a few minority clusters on the opposition side.”
The British papers in particular were alarmed by the success of Sinn Fein, which won five seats, up from one in the last parliament. Two of the new Sinn Fein representatives served prison time for IRA activities. The Independent noted that Sinn Fein “is now the truly unionist party of these islands, represented in the Irish parliament, the [British] House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Assembly.” The Irish Times pointed out that Sinn Fein benefits from a clear “brand image,” while the London Times offered other explanations for the party’s appeal to Irish voters, “Many were too young to remember the worst days of the Troubles, others were attracted by the socialist policies put forward by the party, some were impressed by the ‘pavement politics’ of their activists, many of whom have no links with violence, a few will have hoped that they were encouraging the IRA to move towards an entirely political future, and certain electors were simply expressing a protest vote in an uninspiring election with a seemingly inevitable winner.”
Nevertheless, Canada’s National Post wondered why there was no “hysteria about the rise of the extreme left” in the wake of Sinn Fein’s electoral gains:
Austria’s [Jörg] Haider, France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Pim Fortuyn, were all considered too far right and thus too dangerous to permit in the corridors of power. Their opponents shrieked and foretold of cultural doom if they were. Yet, none of them were convicted terrorists, nor the heads of parties tied inextricably to acknowledged mass killers. Europe’s chattering classes suffer from such astonishingly narrow ideological tunnel vision that they see a greater threat from rhetorical insurgents on the right than from actual ones on the left.