The Irish election result proves one thing: the Irish have a taste for prosperity, just like anybody else. And they voted overwhelmingly for the man and his party with whom that prosperity is identified — Bertie Ahern, the leader of Fianna Fail, who will form the next government after a performance that the party has not equaled since 1977.
For years, the country stumbled along under the burden of an inward-looking economy that was a direct reflection of a vision of Ireland as an island of pious anachronisms resistant to the sea of threatening change that was sweeping most of Western Europe with the growth and consolidation of the European Union. The Irish have since plunged into that sea, and found that, for the most part, they like it.
The years that preceded the election of 2002 saw the birth of the Celtic Tiger, which brought unmatched levels of prosperity to a country and a culture that had been accustomed to poverty and hardship for a large part of their history. The endorsement of Ahern confirms the unsurprising news that the Irish people wish that prosperity to continue and trust him to make sure that it does, regardless of the scandals that have shaken his party in the last few years.
Of course, the voters reelected Ahern because he also promised improvements in health care, the crime situation and in expanding the infrastructure to meet the extra burdens it faces thanks to the new economy. Ahern himself is the very image of the new politics, and the new consumer-based service-oriented economy. That is, he conveys the image of a down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, easygoing Dubliner without social pretensions, an image with which the country clearly seems to be very comfortable. It is a long way indeed from the aloof Puritanism of an Eamon De Valera that dominated Irish cultural and political life for so long.
The election was of a piece in the sense that no party actually ran against the Celtic Tiger. But then who wants to run against success? All parties ran on a platform that they would improve the beast’s performance, and some, like the Greens, wanted to restrain some it its less healthy side effects, such as its potential to destroy the environment. The Greens’ six seats (three times what the party had before) proved that a sizable section of the voting population shares those concerns, which is a good, forward-looking thing.
However, it was the increase in the Sinn Fein vote from one to five seats that received the most scrutiny. To most observers, this was a simple indication that the Celtic Tiger is not distributing its gains equally, and that quite a number of voters feel left out of the spoils. But some reacted almost hysterically, proclaiming that the vote for the party was a direct threat to Irish democracy. After all, the Provisional IRA is still lurking in the shadows.
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However, almost certainly the alarmists are mistaken. Irish democracy has not been seriously challenged since the early 1930s. Sinn Fein’s success if anything makes such a challenge (in whatever form) more unlikely for the simple reason that it increases the strength of the republican movement’s political wing and diminishes whatever power militarists still exercise. The very existence of the IRA becomes an increasing anomaly, and at times a downright nuisance and a source of potential embarrassment. One day the party will have to confront it. In the meantime, Sinn Fein will have to prove also that it is more than just a party of protest. It remains to be seen which task will prove the more difficult.