Witnessing the demise of Irish party politics

The two by-elections that took place last week delivered a shock to the Irish political scene. In the Dublin South-West constituency, Paul Murphy of the Socialist Party won the seat vacated by Fine Gael’s Brian Hayes, who was elected to the European parliament earlier this year. Cathal King of Sinn Féin was the favourite to take the seat, but Murphy narrowly beat him after focusing his campaign heavily on water charges. The favourite also lost out in the Roscommon-South Leitrim constituency. Fianna Fáil’s Ivan Connaughton was defeated by Michael Fitzmaurice, an independent candidate endorsed by Luke Ming Flanagan, who like Brian Hayes vacated his seat because he was elected an MEP. Fitzmaurice’s campaign focused on local issues such as turf, farming and tourism.

These two victories, along with the fact that over 50,000 people marched against water charges on Saturday, mark a shift in Irish politics. Although it is hard to know if this is a momentary outburst of anger, or a lasting shift in attitude, there is a distinctly different atmosphere. People are moving away from the party system and engaging with politics on a micro level. They are abandoning old loyalties in order to bring other issues to the fore, the ones that affect their daily lives, and their pockets. In the UK a similar change is occurring. Last week Douglas Carswell became UKIP’s first MP, when he won back the seat that he resigned after his defection from the Conservative party.

Closer to home, the poll conducted by Trinity News this week shows that students are also moving away from traditional party politics. Only 31% of students polled said they would vote for either Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Labour. 28% of students identified with Sinn Féin, the Green Party and others. Perhaps more interesting is the proportion of students who said they did not know who they would vote for (29%) and who claimed that they would not vote at all (13%). Only 27% of those polled had confidence in the current government.

Students, like the rest of the population, are turning away from organisations that have dominated the political landscape for years. They look to the major political parties, and do not see their own concerns reflect there. They have even become disengaged with the organisation that is supposed to look after the specific interests of students, the USI. Only a small minority of Irish undergraduates attended the USI’s pre-budget rally last week.

The large groups that once brought people together now fill them with distrust. Parties and unions are seen to be concerned only with money and power. People still care about things, but they are choosing to express this in different ways. They will march for abortion or against water charges, but they are reluctant to become card-carrying members of any organisation.

However, this is not to say that the political party as a vehicle for power is dead. Groups like Sinn Féin and UKIP are capitalising on the disillusionment with larger parties by launching populist campaigns that often focus on local issues. The shift to a more personal, local politics is encouraging. It should be welcomed. But at the same time we must be wary of those who seek to jump on the bandwagon, but are only doing so superficially. We need a new politics, not a new set of parties.