Year of the Independents?

Ireland’s 2016 general election has produced a parliament full of feuding factions and no obvious road to a majority government, spurring lawmakers to warn on Sunday that the country could face a protracted political deadlock followed by a second election. For the first time in Irish electoral history, the combined popular vote on Feb. 26 for Ireland’s two political heavyweights—the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties—fell below 50 percent as voters infuriated by austerity measures shifted their support to a Babel of antigovernment voices.

The results left parliament with at least nine factions and a legion of loose-cannon independents, few of them easy partners for a coalition government, none of them numerous enough to make a difference on their own. With 12 seats in Ireland’s 158-member parliament still to be filled, the ruling Fine Gael won 46 seats, and its longtime foe Fianna Fáil 42, the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin 22 and junior government partner Labour just six. An eye-popping array of tiny parties, umbrella groups and parochial mavericks won the rest.


Leading members of Fianna Fáil—which rebounded in this vote just five years after facing electoral ruin for nearly bankrupting the country—said they would find it extremely hard to forge any coalition that keeps Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael in power.

The trouble is, Ireland’s voters have never produced a parliament like this before. And there’s no third party strong enough to give Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael a parliamentary majority of at least 79 seats. Both parties have ruled out working with Sinn Fein, the only party that could get either of them close. When the new parliament convenes on March 10 to elect a prime minister to appoint a government, both Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin say they will put themselves forward as rival candidates. Failure to create a new government would mean Kenny’s five-year-old coalition with Labour continues indefinitely in a lame-duck caretaker role.

Fine Gael swept to victory in the last election, capitalizing on the catastrophic fall from grace of Ireland’s other traditionally dominant party, Fianna Fáil. The latter saw Ireland through the booming Celtic Tiger years, but its policies ultimately led to the collapse of the Irish economy in 2008. As the majority party since 2011, Fine Gael has promoted the idea that it brought Ireland back from a crippling recession with jobs and investment.

While that recovery is evident, the process has not been painless, with the introduction of controversial new property taxes, water charges and income taxes, not to mention the transfer of a huge amount of private debt into the public domain. Ireland’s flawed health system has dominated the debates this election, along with the housing crisis and homelessness.

The mutual hostility between Ireland’s two dominant parties has been festering for decades, though it may mystify outsiders who do not have a grasp of Ireland’s peculiar politics and its roots in the civil war struggle nearly a century ago. In fact, the real question for many Irish voters is no longer parsing the difference between Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, but between those who feel they have a stake in Irish public life and those who feel completely disillusioned and disconnected from the political system. The crash hit every home in the country, if not through job loss or emigration, then through controversial new taxes and levies.

The shift in the Irish psyche is not unlike the one in the United States that has led to the rise of Donald J. Trump and Bernie Sanders, candidates propelled by an electorate that feels disenchanted with the political establishment. If 2016 is the year of the outsider in the United Sates, it has become the year of the independent in Ireland.

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