Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin's message 'hit a nerve'

Sinn Fein Image copyright PAUL FAITH
Image caption In the picture: Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams, Martina Anderson, Lynn Boylan and Mary Lou McDonald

Sinn Féin can be happiest of all the political parties in the Republic of Ireland with how it performed in both the European and local government elections.

It is now the biggest party in Dublin City Council, going from five to 16 of the 63 seats, and is set to have MEPs in all three constituencies.

Across the Republic of Ireland, it more or less trebled its number of councillors.

The party's message - that people have had enough of the austerity of tax rises and public spending Fianna Fáil did better than expected, increasing it share in the local elections to 25% from 17% in the 2011 general election, when the party went into near meltdown in the wake of the EU-IMF bailout of the almost bankrupt state.

But Micheál Martin's party would have liked to have done better in Dublin, where it won nine of the 63 seats.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Ruth Coppinger of the Socialist Party was elected in the Dublin West by-election

Fianna Fáil currently has no parliamentary candidate in the Irish capital and its failure to win a European seat there is bound to be disappointing.

The other big winners were independents and smaller hard-left parties, who did particularly well in Dublin.

In the Dublin West by-election, although Sinn Féin topped the poll, it was the Socialist Party's Ruth Coppinger who was elected after a campaign highlighting her opposition to water charges and the property tax.

Her election will be seen by some as proof that Sinn Féin is still not as transfer-friendly as other parties. Gerry Adams' recent arrest may have been a factor in this.

Another winner in the European elections is Luke 'Ming the Merciless' Flanagan in the Midlands-North-West constituency.

Another left-winger, he is probably best known as a legalise cannabis campaigner and as a champion of turf-cutters.

But, like many elected across the EU, he is no fan of Brussels. He believes it sides too often with big business against ordinary people.

There can be little doubt as to who the losers were.

The Fine Gael and Labour parties are licking their political wounds.

The coalition seems to have lost its way since exiting the bailout, with a number of controversies of its own making engulfing it, not least of which was one about police whistleblowers.

Labour ministers have complained that they got 19% of the vote in the general election but are getting 90% of the blame for implementing the EU-IMF deal negotiated by Fianna Fáil and the Greens.

But with a 7% share in the local elections and losing all three MEP seats, questions were quickly being asked about Eamon Gilmore's continued leadership.

He bowed to the inevitable and resigned.

Several statements that he and his party made during the 2011 general election campaign came back to haunt him, most notably: "It's Labour's way or Frankfurt's way."

People soon realised it was the European Central Bank in Frankfurt that called the shots as long as the bailout lasted.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Eamon Gilmore "bowed to the inevitable and resigned"

He will stay on as deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs until his successor is announced on 4 July.

But many Labour TDs know that merely changing the party leader is not the only answer to all the party's problems.

All of which recalls the statement by the former Luxembourg prime minister about the current financial crisis, in general, and the Eurozone's, in particular: "We all know what has to be done. We just don't know how to get elected afterwards".

While most of the attention has been on Labour dropping 12% on its general election performance Fine Gael dropped by a similar amount.

The party may well have done better in the European elections than some of its opponents, but it was still a bad election. Irish prime minister Enda Kenny, acknowledged voter frustration and anger.

Both government parties will be hoping to turn the situation around in time for the general election expected in 2016.

But with 2bn euros more to be taken out of the economy in tax rises and spending cuts will the Labour party be happy to stay in government and continue with austerity?

The party probably has no choice but to do so. But, for the first time, questions are being asked about the coalition's future stability.

And while the government may be tempted to blame mid-term blues for its performance Labour, in particular, will know from the experience of the SDLP in Northern Ireland, that those huge and more deprived areas of Dublin that voted Sinn Féin this time, are going to be tough to win back.

In the past, political scientists in the Republic used to talk of a two-and-a-half party system - Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour.

Now it's more like a three-and-two bits system - Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Sinn Féin with the Labour party and the many and varied Independents making up the bits.

Politics in Ireland are going to get a lot more interesting.