A Razzle-Dazzle Tiger: Ireland's Next Government Will Inherit a Glorious Economy and a Chance to Reshape Society

By O'Toole, Fintan | New Statesman (1996), May 23, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Razzle-Dazzle Tiger: Ireland's Next Government Will Inherit a Glorious Economy and a Chance to Reshape Society


O'Toole, Fintan, New Statesman (1996)


Until recently Irish general elections were among the most predictable in the democratic world. Not only was it very likely that the populist Fianna Fail party would win, but it was certain that even if it did not, the main force in an alternative coalition government would be a virtually identical party, Fine Gael. Irish politics were almost incomprehensible to outsiders, for instead of a recognisable left-right divide the main cleavage was between these two conservative nationalist parties, whose differences dated back to the civil war of 1923.

In the general election called last week for 6 June, however, there are at least six parties with realistic chances of playing some part in whatever government is elected. On the one side there is the outgoing centre-left coalition led by Fine Gael's John Bruton, but with a policy agenda strongly influenced by his partners, the Labour Party and the post-Marxist Democratic Left.

On the other, there is a less formal centre-right alliance between Fianna Fail, led by Berrie Ahern, and the free-market liberals, the Progressive Democrats. And to complicate matters further, there is a strong chance that the Green Party, which won two seats in the last European Parliament election, may hold the balance of power.

At the moment the polls point to a victory for Ahern's alliance, but this is far from certain. Under the Irish system of multi-seat constituencies and proportional representation, the transfers of votes between candidates are crucial. And the remarkable coherence of Bruton's apparently disparate alliance is likely to make for a tighter transfer of votes between its constituent parties. Since the campaign so far has been dull and cautious, the expectation is that the outcome will be very close indeed.

This in itself seems remarkable, for Bruton has presided over an epoch-making economic breakthrough. As recently as the early 1970s, after the last great boom time for the Irish economy, gross domestic product per head of population in the Republic was half that of the UK. In 1995, when Bruton came into office, if the EU average for GDP per head was 100, Ireland's was 95.1 and the UK's 98.3. But Eurostat and the European Commission estimate that for 1996 the figures were 100.7 for Ireland and 98.9 for the UK. By 1998 it is predicted they will be 106.3 for Ireland and 99.6 for the UK.

What Newsweek magazine described in December 1996 as the "Emerald Tiger" ("No need to search the Far East. The best answers to Europe's economic problems are much closer to home. Ireland is booming") is not so much on the prowl as on the razzle-dazzle. Economic growth of 6 per cent in 1996, on top of an 8 per cent growth rate in 1995, has sent money pumping through the system. Last year, for instance, a dozen houses in Dublin sold for more than [pounds]1 million apiece. The two major Irish banking groups are estimated to have made profits of [pounds]375 million each in 1996. In Dublin's Financial Services Centre alone, 250 executives earn more than [pounds]250,000 a year.

Normally those who preside over such good times could expect to bask in the glow of national gratitude. Instead the opposite has been the case. As wealth has grown, so has an extraordinary popular scepticism about leaders of all sorts, to such an extent that the whole idea of authority - political, moral, religious has become utterly problematic. Just as attachment to the teachings of the Catholic Church has declined - symbolised by the introduction of divorce laws for the first time this year - so have inherited political loyalties.

The public, indeed, no longer seems to associate good times with national politics at all. Government ministers may have been able to spend the billions of ecus flowing in from the EU's regional and social funds, but the public knew that it had people outside the state - mostly German taxpayers - to thank for them. They may have been able to announce huge industrial investments such as IBM's 3,000-jobs project for Dublin or Intel's $1. …

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