Irish Anger Threatens Exodus From Dominant Party After Record Boom to Bust
Thomas Redmond, a newspaper seller at Tara Street train station in central Dublin, helped Fianna Fail dominate Irish politics for eight decades. Now, he says he will never vote for the party again.
Redmond said he used to sell 200 copies of the Evening Herald, an Irish national newspaper, every day. That’s now dropped to 50 as the country struggles with Europe’s biggest financial demise. Like droves of other disgruntled voters, the 52-year-old will take his grievances to the ballot box in national elections on Feb. 25.
“They let the country go to ruin,” said Redmond. “Most of the time in the past I would have voted for them. Never again. I blame them for it all.”
While few political parties have been as successful at winning elections in the past as Fianna Fail, few have presided over an economic boom and bust of such magnitude.
Since the party came to power again in 1997 -- it’s governed for three of every four years since winning its first election in 1932 -- Ireland went from being western Europe’s fastest-growing economy to one needing an 85 billion-euro ($115 billion) rescue from the European Union and International Monetary Fund in November as bank debt mounted.
“People are asking why aren’t the Irish storming the barricades, why aren’t they angry?” Diarmaid Ferriter, an historian and author of “The Transformation of Ireland: 1900- 2000,” said in an interview. “The answer is they are, and they are getting ready to give Fianna Fail a good kicking.”
Fianna Fail is facing its worst-ever election result after unemployment tripled since 2008 to a rate of 13.4 percent last month and the economy contracted about 15 percent since the end of 2007. Gross domestic product increased an average of 7 percent a year from 1997 to 2006.
A Feb. 13 opinion poll for the Sunday Business Post newspaper gave the party 15 percent support, in third place. In 2007, Fianna Fail got 42 percent of the vote and it has averaged around 45 percent in elections since its creation in 1926.
Fine Gael, the main opposition party and led by Enda Kenny, 59, since 2002, was at 38 percent with the Labour Party on 20 percent. Both parties, which governed in a coalition between 1994 and 1997, have pledged to renegotiate the terms of the EU and IMF bailout to reduce the burden of repaying the loans.
“Diabolical is how I would describe it,” Gavin Kavanagh, 31, a pipe-layer who lost his job last year, said in an interview in Dundalk, a town around 45 miles from Dublin. “It is a disgrace what has happened. The government has dragged the whole country down. I’ll vote for Fine Gael this time.”
Period of Austerity
Finance Minister Brian Lenihan introduced four austerity budgets since taking the post in May 2008 in an effort to narrow an underlying deficit that reached 12 percent of GDP last year, four times the EU limit. While the government raised taxes and cut spending, the cost of bank bailouts soared.
The country will have to pour about 30 billion euros, close to the state’s entire tax take last year, into Anglo Irish Bank Corp. In all, 46 billion euros has been committed to rescuing the financial system, with another 35 billion euros available as part of the bailout.
“Fianna Fail aren’t responsible for everything, but they were in charge when it happened,” said Derek Smullen, 50, a Dublin taxi driver who will abandon support for the party next week in favor of Labour or an independent candidate. “I have two children who are fully trained and are now unemployed.”
Fianna Fail is pinning its hopes on the appeal of its new leader, Micheal Martin, and loyalty from voters who have supported it for generations.
Martin, 50, who succeeded Prime Minister Brian Cowen, 51, on Jan. 26 apologized to voters for the government’s handling of the recession. On Feb. 11, Martin said he and six other cabinet members won’t take a 90,000-euro severance payment for leaving their posts after the election.
Martin, who was previously foreign minister, wants to get “over 20 percent” of the vote, he said in a Feb. 9 interview in Athlone, County Westmeath. “We’re going to work very hard to maximize our vote and seats in the election.”
Fianna Fail was formed by Irish republicans including its first premier, Eamon De Valera. They were on the losing side of a civil war that was ignited by the acceptance of a 1921 treaty granting Ireland independence from the U.K. and partitioning the country, with the north remaining under British control. Fine Gael, which backed the treaty, was founded by the winners.
“My father fought in the war of independence with De Valera and I’ve voted for Fianna Fail all my life, and I’m not changing now,” said Tom Barrat, 69, in Ballina, western Ireland. “I blame the banks. I don’t blame Fianna Fail.”
At Dublin’s Tara Street station, commuters head over bridges to glass office blocks up and down the River Liffey, built during the boom and left partially empty after the bust. Further eastwards toward the docks, the concrete shell of what was to be Anglo Irish’s headquarters lies unfinished and abandoned, a reminder of the country’s collapse.
Newspaper seller Redmond said he was considering putting a tick next to Sinn Fein, the nationalist party led by Belfast native Gerry Adams and now vying with Fianna Fail for third place based on the recent polls.
“I’m not sure who I’ll vote for this time, but whoever it will be, it won’t be Fianna Fail,” he said.
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