Our writers consider the policies of parties old and new in what will be the first election many students are eligible to vote in.
Click on the party names below to view our assessment of them.
Fine Gael is currently in government with its junior coalition partner Labour. As the largest party, they are the main ideological drivers behind current policies.
The success of the Marriage Equality Referendum was a particularly bright moment for the coalition. The Yes campaign attracted near unanimous support from the student body, and politicians like Leo Varadkar offered a more modern and liberal face to young people. This was followed up by The Gender Recognition Bill, an historic milestone in transgender rights in an historically conservative country. However, LGBT oppression is still a serious issue in Ireland with cuts to services devastating vital lifelines for those in need.
Enda Kenny has recently declared a free vote for members on a future vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment. However, bills to repeal the Eighth have been repeatedly voted down by Kenny’s party. Ireland’s abortion laws are considered some of the most restrictive in Europe, falling 40 years behind similarly developed countries like the US and the UK. Nevertheless, many women act in their own interests regardless of decisions made in the Dáil. This is illustrated by the fact that it is illegal for a woman to self-medicate with mifepristone, a WHO approved abortifacient, yet 1017 of these pills were seized by Irish customs in 2014 alone. The question is not: “Will Irish women have access to abortion?” Many do – approximately 3600 in 2014. The question is: “Will women in Ireland unable to travel or raise the necessary funds have the choice to access a medically supervised abortion?” From the conservative edge of the party to the more progressive vanguard led by Leo Varadkar, the current answer appears to be no.
Dublin rents are nearly 10% above the national average and have steadily risen since FG have come to power, exacerbating homelessness in the city. Speaking to Trinity News, housing activist Rory Hearne states: “It is a national emergency and without a significant shift in policy the crisis will only worsen. At the current rate of families becoming homeless there will be more than 6,000 children in emergency accommodation by 2017.”
It is also important to know that Fine Gael is overwhelmingly a party of landlords. Recent declarations of assets revealed that Fine Gael topped the rankings in property ownership. This is not to suggest a conspiracy against students and tenants but to be wary that those in power often act in their own interests.
NAMA is a useful resource pool from which the state can draw to help ameliorate the chronic shortage of suitable housing. But so far, precedence has been given to high-end apartments and office spaces over affordable accommodation. There are two conflicting interests at play: the need to provide affordable shelter for thousands of Irish citizens, and the need to ensure Ireland is an attractive investment location for foreign capital. That is, the interest of utility and that of commodity.
The Cassells report, a government working group tasked with finding a solution to falling investment in third-level education, has proved a contentious issue. A supposed leak in the report from last December said that the group would recommend an increase in the student contribution by €1000, no longer covered by a means-tested grant, but paid for by all students through a loan or otherwise. The final decision of the group is not contingent on who is in government after the election, however. Separately, Fine Gael plan to introduce a student loan scheme according to a report in the Irish Times.
Post-education, the unemployment rate for those aged between 20 and 24 is 20%. This coupled with the fact that 26% of workers earn less than the living wage doesn’t present an encouraging picture for graduates. Not coincidentally, 17.5% of people born in Ireland are currently living abroad, the highest percentage of all OECD countries.
Eóin Ó Murchú
Last summer, three independent TDs (Catherine Murphy, Roisin Shortall, and Stephen Donnelly) formed the Social Democrats, a new centre-left party. Catherine Murphy is probably the most well-known for her use of Dáil privilege to highlight the “extremely favourable interest rates” given to tax-exile Denis O’Brien from the “toxic” IBRC when repaying his debts to the state-owned bank. Their website claims the party embodies the “principles of progress, equality, democracy and sustainability.”
Joint-leader Catherine Murphy has recently revealed the Social Democrats would be willing to work with any rival party, provided the coalition doesn’t reduce her newly formed party to taking “crumbs from the table.” How this strategy will play out remains to be seen, as the current government has seen a traditionally left-of-centre party work as a junior partner to Fine Gael much to the detriment of Labour in polls.
Voters should also note that the Social Democrats have signed a pledge to keep water in public ownership.
The Social Democrats intend to repeal the Eighth Amendment, but it is unclear to what extent they will advocate for abortion liberalisation. According to the Chair of TCD Social Democrats, Ronan Mac Giolla Rua, the minimum we can expect is “provisions for abortion in cases of rape, incest, or when the baby is unlikely to survive outside the womb.” The recently released manifesto has alluded to a “people’s convention” on the Eighth. This may be a deciding factor among Trinity students, bearing in mind the Students’ Union is formally mandated to campaign for pro-choice legislation.
In their manifesto the Social Democrats call for a reduction in the student contribution, capping it at €2,000. They also promise to protect the maintenance grant and re-introduce it for postgraduate students, aiming to “ensure broad sociodemographic representation across the third-level system.”
These measures run counter to the poll-topping parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, so may be a point of compromise in any potential coalition. Mac Giolla Rua insists that “increasing fees and introducing student loans to cover those extra costs shuts people out from going to college. We are completely opposed to them.” He cites education as “the single most important route to achieving equality and prosperity.”
With 14 candidates running, the party hopes to reach seven TDs for Dáil speaking rights and to distinguish itself from a number of other recently established parties.
Eóin Ó Murchú
Sinn Féin has found it difficult to free itself of historical associations with the IRA, and Gerry Adams remains president even after 33 years at the helm. However, firmly left-wing and anti-corporation, they have seen a surge in popularity since the economic crash: Sinn Féin have managed to increase their number of Dáil seats from the four secured following the 2007 general election to 14 in 2011.
At the Ard Fheis last May, Adams expressed his intention to lead Ireland’s next government, adding that Sinn Féin will not “prop up” Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. However, last September, Adams stated that Sinn Féin would be prepared to enter a coalition with whichever party was successful in the election. Meanwhile Fianna Fáil, Labour and Fine Gael have all ruled this out.
The party’s stance on abortion has been somewhat unclear following an abstention last year on TD Clare Daly’s bill for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities. However, they have shown long-term support in favour of legislating for the X Case, supporting the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013. And when Peadar Tóibín defied the party position on the vote, he was suspended for 6 months. More recently at the Ard Fheis in May, the party voted to support abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, thus confirming their stance.
Sinn Féin have promised that if elected they will endeavour to move away from a “two tier health system to universal healthcare,” including plans to introduce free GP care and prescriptions, and additionally increasing investment in the health service generally.
In relation to the housing crisis, Adams’ party have promised to build 100,000 new affordable homes. Particularly relevant are plans to introduce legislation capping the interest rates that banks can charge and the introduction of rent controls.
Sinn Féin would abolish the Local Property Tax, water charges, and remove those on minimum wage from the USC net. To compensate, they would target the wealthy by introducing a third rate of income tax on individual earnings of over €100,000, as well as a tax on individual wealth exceeding €1 million, excluding working farmland and business assets.
Sinn Féin have an ambition to return to free education, where schools are not reliant on the voluntary contribution system. They would expand construction of schools, and address poverty by funding breakfast clubs, meal schemes and book lending, as well as providing further grants to third-level students. No official policy exists on third-level fees, but numerous members of the party have condoned the possibility of an increase.
Fianna Fáil’s website is filled with promises of a fairer deal for ordinary people. Their plans include increasing funding for CIE and Bus Éireann, new council housing, investing in broadband, increasing farm subsidies, increasing the size of the Garda force and a tax funded health system instead of universal health insurance.
Fianna Fáil have essentially ruled out a coalition with Fine Gael in two successive Ard Fheiseanna. They also ruled out a coalition with Sinn Fein this year, despite Gerry Adams’ refusal to rule this on Sinn Fein’s end. Fianna Fáil have never been the junior party in coalition, but it remains to be seen if that could change with this election. It is clear that their intention, at least, is to be the main party in government – and it would put them on the back foot right away if they were to enter a government with Fine Gael after multiple commitments not to.
The party is openly opposed to repealing the Eighth Amendment. It is conceivable that things would change with public pressure, particularly since FF TDs are being allowed a free vote on the issue, but if the leadership have their way on abortion the Eighth will stay where it is.
Fianna Fáil’s plans for the public sector generally amount to more investment. They want to increase the number of nurses and hospital beds, but also state that they will rebalance the system towards primary care and fund a national program for mental health. Their willingness to cut the budget and impose austerity measures during their last tenure could be seen to cast doubt on these plans, though the change in leadership might simply have different ideas.
Alongside their promises to fund more public sector projects, they also promise to increase tax credits, increase the threshold for inheritance tax and cut capital gains taxes for businesses to encourage job creation. They, like some other parties, have also promised to reform the USC, stating that we have to recognise people’s ability to pay.
The biggest question in mind when examining Fianna Fáil’s promises is how they intend to pay for their plans.
Similar to their aims in other sectors, Fianna Fáil want to increase spending on third-level education and reduce class sizes in schools. They also favour a loan scheme for those who do not have access to grants for college. It is unclear from this policy whether they intend to use this scheme as a stepping stone for fees or if the increased third-level funding will be used to prevent that.
Labour have centred themselves around working families. After the extension of free GP care to under-sixes, they promise to roll this out for every child and adult, to reduce class sizes and build new schools, and to extend paid parental leave. They have also promised to reduce the student contribution by €500 if elected, and to abolish the USC for low and middle-income earners following last year’s decrease. As with every other party, they have promised to create jobs and invest in infrastructure; more information on this may come with their manifesto.
Though they point to their role in the marriage equality referendum and the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, their website specifies no plan for social progress. Several prominent Labour candidates have made a commitment to repeal the 8th Amendment if elected, but it remains to be seen whether this will take centre stage in their manifesto. They fulfilled their only manifesto promise relating to abortion in 2011, which was legislating for the X Case; though advocates for abortion rights have argued against that legislation because of the introduction of a potential prison sentence for women who have an abortion.
On education, Labour pledge to reduce the cost for families and the class sizes in schools. They have pledged to reduce the student contribution by 500 euro, though it is worth noting their U-turn after their 2011 promise to hold the contribution steady. While this may have been technically kept, the increase in the contribution demonstrates their inability to keep fees off the table.
The problem, once again, with the promises Labour have set out is that they will almost certainly fail to secure a mandate to deliver on them. In 2011, Ruairi Quinn signed a declaration in front of Trinity promising not to introduce fees. Labour drew a red line on child benefit, and made cuts to it in government; their citation of the raise in this year’s budget comes across as slightly less sincere when this is remembered.
If you were to comb through Labour’s 2011 manifesto and look at each of their promises, they plainly failed to deliver on many. This is commonplace for junior coalition partners; of course they would have to make compromises. Now the coalition partners are cooperating much more and it seems that a vote for Labour is a vote for the current government.
This means that they cannot be expected to deliver on all of their promises, especially ones that Fine Gael are openly against. But they can be expected to push for some, as they pushed for the protection of grants and free GP care for children.
Anti-Austerity Alliance – People Before Profit
The Anti-Austerity Alliance – People Before Profit party was launched in late 2015 as the latest attempt at unity within Ireland’s chronically fractured socialist left. It encompasses the electoral efforts of Ireland’s two major leftist organisations, the Socialist Party (AAA) and the Socialist Workers Party (PBP). The grouping currently has 4 TDs: veteran socialist TD Joe Higgins along with newcomers Paul Murphy, Ruth Coppinger and Richard Boyd Barrett. The alliance performed strongly at the local elections, increasing the number of socialist councillors from a handful to 28, winning seats in Dublin, Cork, Wexford, Limerick and Sligo. During the lifetime of this government, it has also won two by-elections.
AAA-PBP endorse the immediate repeal of the Eighth Amendment and the provision of free, safe and legal abortions. Their TDs have also decried the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill’s 14 year prison term for women who procure an abortion within Ireland as a concession to the far-right anti-abortion lobby and a betrayal of Labour’s stated pro-choice position. AAA-PBP TDs have allied with independent socialist TDs Clare Daly and Joan Collins to endorse emergency abortion legislation and have participated in marches organised by pro-choice organisations.
AAA-PBP support free third-level education funded by a progressive taxation system, and consider rising fees or proposed loan systems as an attack on working class students. AAA-PBP have also advocated for increased spending in the arts sector to the 0.6% EU average. Lastly, AAA-PBP have been critical of the school patronage system and have consequently campaigned against religious discrimination in school admissions.
AAA-PBP advocate the introduction of rent controls, the linking of rent increases to inflation and giving tenants the security of tenure as measures against homelessness among private renters. TD Richard Boyd Barrett introduced a bill that would recognise a landlord’s refusal to accept rent allowance as discrimination. The party also proposes to build 50,000 units of social housing over the next 5 years as well as transfer 20,000 NAMA properties over to local authorities. They argue this programme will alleviate the vast housing waiting list and the large number of unemployed workers in the construction industry. AAA-PBP elected representatives have been active in the blocking of evictions and numerous housing protests outside the Dáil and numerous local authorities.
If opinion polls (a mid-November Sunday Times poll placed AAA-PBP above Labour) are to be believed, the AAA-PBP are persuading many left-wing voters to reconsider their support for Labour. AAA-PBP will be looking to represent those who, after numerous austerity budgets, stagnant wages, and an affordable housing shortage, feel the growing economy has not been of benefit to them.
Renua is one of the newest parties contesting this year’s general election, and was formed by ex-Fine Gael TD Lucinda Creighton. The Renua leader was expelled from the Fine Gael parliamentary party after she voted against the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 which legislated for the provision of abortion in cases where the mother’s life was endangered. In broad terms, the party is mainly motivated by free market economics. They currently boast economist and television personality Eddie Hobbs as their President. The party got off to a shaky start when another of their TDs, Terence Flanagan, suffered a “mental blank” on one of Ireland’s most listened to radio programmes on the day the party was formed. Flanagan was unable to answer any questions about the party or their policies. They have announced they will run 18 candidates in the upcoming election, and could be a potential coalition partner for Fine Gael.
To deal with the funding crisis in Irish third-level education, Renua support the introduction of a student loans system. While not laying out any explicit introduction of fees, Renua’s manifesto describes the measure as a response to underfunding in Irish education and as a “new income stream” for third level institutions. Presumably loans are intended to finance a new structure of fees for a third level degree, as this is usually how the student loans model is implemented. Students would only be required to begin repayment of the loan when their salaries have exceeded a certain level – “likely to be in the region of €25,000.”
Housing is likely to be one of the dominant issues during the election campaign, and Renua’s policy is based around incentivizing the private sector in the provision of housing. As a short-term measure to alleviate the current housing crisis, they propose tax breaks and financial incentives for private landlords. They are concerned with ensuring that those in need of housing remain “an attractive commercial proposition from the perspective of the landlord.” In the long term they propose a private-public partnership to provide investment of €10 billion in the Irish housing sector.
Renua have taken an authoritarian stance on crime, proposing a “three strike” rule which will introduce mandatory life sentences for anyone convicted of their third serious offence. The crimes which would come under this rule include rape, child sex abuse and burglary. Creighton has said: “We make no apologies for being tough on crime.”
One of the most controversial and publicised elements of Renua’s programme is their proposed flat income tax. This will see all workers taxed at 23%, irrespective of their income. They claim that this will remove disincentives to work. This came under scrutiny when the tax calculator on Renua’s own website showed that workers earning minimum wage would be €800 worse off under their tax plan. The tax calculator has since been removed from the website due to “technical difficulties.”
Led by Eamonn Ryan, the Green Party was founded in 1985, earning their first Dáil seats in 1989. Firmly left-wing, and active both in Northern Ireland and the Republic, they hold a “vision for better planning, social justice, sustainable economic growth and protection of our natural environment.”
Revisions to their constitution in 2015 include a clear opposition to “destructive process which are destroying our planet. We favour a balanced and sustainable system of production and utilisation of resources, keeping account of real costs.” They would redistribute the world’s resources to deal with poverty in developing countries, and believe that decisions should be based on respecting the rights of minority groups.
The party had a candidate in each constituency for the first time in 2007, winning their highest national share of votes to-date (4.7%). They served in a coalition government with Fianna Fáil from 2007 to 2011 with 6 elected TDs. More recently the party has felt a noted decline in popularity, losing all Dáil seats in 2011, the first time since 1989 that the Dáil has been completely without Green representation.
The future of the party is uncertain in light of the most recent election results. But given that the Greens place a huge emphasis on conservation and sustainability, this may attract more voters in the wake of the United Nations Summit on climate change last year in Paris.
Interestingly, the party does not have a stance on abortion, allowing each member and elected representative can decide individually.
The Greens believe in a healthcare system based on universal access, free at the point of entry. They propose to fund it through taxation, but include the caveat for limited patient charges “where justified.” Their policy outlines a holistic approach to healthcare: better health education, more accurate food labelling, and ensuring that disease-specific leaflets are available in a variety of languages.
The Greens propose a more favorable tax treatment for landlords with tenants in receipt of the rent allowance. The housing crisis arises partly from the fact that those on rent supplement are limited to the cheapest 35% of properties on the market, and are therefore in competition with low-income families not in receipt of the supplement, and students, who all look for inexpensive housing.
The Greens would move away from this over-reliance on the private rental sector for those unable to afford housing, proposing to build more social housing units. They would also apply a levy to all unused housing stock that could be used for social housing.
The party proposes a radical overhaul of Irish Water by enshrining the right to water in the Constitution and blocking any attempt to privatise the national utility. They also propose putting conservation at the heart of the billing process. To encourage this, charges would only incur once usage exceeds a baseline free allowance.
The Greens would replace the Local Property Tax with a site value tax charged on the value of non agricultural land, charged on the site itself rather than any improvements, which, they say, would encourage efficient use of land and redevelopment of brownfield sites.
In 2014, the party stated they would call for a freezing of current tuition fees until 2019, with the aim of gradually reducing those fees. They would review the funding mechanism on an ongoing basis to ensure equality of access, and review the huge inefficiencies of the third-level grant system. Finally, the Greens explicitly oppose any cuts to student grants.