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Sinn Fein supporters protest outside Irish government buildings, in Dublin, Ireland, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010. The Irish government has unveiled a range of tough austerity measures designed to help solve the country's debt crisis, among the spending cuts and tax rises are a reduction in the minimum wage, a new property tax and thousands of public sector job cuts. (Peter Morrison/AP/Peter Morrison/AP)
Sinn Fein supporters protest outside Irish government buildings, in Dublin, Ireland, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010. The Irish government has unveiled a range of tough austerity measures designed to help solve the country's debt crisis, among the spending cuts and tax rises are a reduction in the minimum wage, a new property tax and thousands of public sector job cuts. (Peter Morrison/AP/Peter Morrison/AP)

Ireland's crisis lends a boost to Sinn Fein Add to ...

A motorcade bearing bright green flags pulled up to an inn in this rural corner of Ireland on Wednesday morning and out stepped the bearded figure of Gerry Adams, a figure still viewed as something of a foreign celebrity here.

Mr. Adams is better known for his role across the nearby border in the British province of Northern Ireland as the leader of Sinn Fein, the party that began as the political branch of the Irish Republican Army. The party's move into mainstream politics on both sides of the border has been largely rebuffed in the Republic of Ireland, where his extremist form of angry nationalism has attracted only marginal interest in elections.

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But the economic crisis appears to have changed that, at least here in County Donegal. A by-election Thursday has turned into a referendum on Ireland's economic bailout, and voter fury at the ruling Fianna Fail party has been mounting all week.

That anger seemed to reach a plateau on Wednesday, the day before the vote, when Prime Minister Brian Cowen introduced an emergency austerity budget, designed to satisfy European Union and International Monetary Fund lenders, that slashes 24,000 government jobs, raises the sales tax to 23 per cent, cuts the minimum wage and welfare payments, while leaving the corporate tax rate untouched. This is not the stuff of electoral glory.

Brian O'Domhnaill, the governing party's young and enthusiastic candidate, should have been poised to win neatly - his party has picked up at least half the votes in every election in the past decade.

But that was before the International Monetary Fund arrived in Dublin and set down terms for its €85-billion bailout loan with the European Union; it was before Fianna Fail's Mr. Cowen answered those demands on Wednesday with a four-year austerity budget that slashes social services and the minimum wage.

The timing, for Mr. O'Domhnaill, could not have been worse. And the main beneficiaries, here at least, are Sinn Fein, whose economic policies are on the Marxist left; their leaders have been suggesting that Ireland default on its debts.

Sinn Fein's popularity here has risen from 6.9 per cent - close to the party's usual national standing - to 40 per cent in polls last week. These showed Pearse Doherty, Sinn Fein's candidate in the by-election, winning the vote.

"I believe that there is a better way to the policies of slash and cut of this government and the other opposition parties," Mr. Doherty told reporters during Mr. Adams's visit. "It is time to break with the politics of the past."

That sort of rhetoric has not appealed to Irish voters, who have generally alternated between the centre-right politics of Fianna Fail and its moderate opposition, Fine Gael, with less mainstream voters preferring the Green Party, a member of the current government.

But the anger at Mr. Cowen's sudden, unannounced invitation of foreigners to bail out this fiercely independent country's economy, and then a budget that left Ireland's low corporate tax untouched while raising the sales tax to 23 per cent, has sent voters fleeing the mainstream.

Mr. O'Domhnaill, like many local politicians from the venerable Fianna Fail party, was humiliated by his party leader when the IMF arrived last week.

Until then, the upstart politician had been pitching himself at county rallies as the man who could keep his county free from foreign bailouts: "By God, I'm not going to allow the IMF to come in and shatter our independence," he said at a local rally only days before the officials from Washington checked into a Dublin hotel.

This left him with little to say in response, and a visit by Mr. Cowen on Saturday received a distinctly tepid reception.

"The country is officially in hock and the electorate, traumatized by the run of recent events, are going to vote accordingly, and who can blame them?" said Scott Harvey, editor of the Donegal Post.

If Sinn Fein does win a seat on Thursday, it may be seen by some as the turning of a tide. So far, the economic crisis has not driven European voters to extremism. While far-right parties have seen small gains in the Netherlands, Hungary and Scandinavia, both the far left and the extreme right have been wiped out in Britain, France and Germany, and none of the nations facing actual or potential bailouts has seen a shift to the extremes.

Donegal, an isolated district in the far northwest, does not exactly represent Ireland as a whole.

Most analysts in Ireland feel that the next election - which could come as early as January, making this by-election something of a brief interlude - will almost certainly devastate Fianna Fail, and will do little for the traditional centrist opposition party Fine Gael.

Most expect the social-democratic Labour Party to make strong gains and to form a coalition with Fine Gael. Sinn Fein, whose isolationist nationalism still seems alien in a country that values its ties to the wider world, is likely to make gains, but they will likely be symbolic protest votes, as they may well prove to be in Donegal.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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