Anti-European party meets its Waterloo in Ireland

DUBLIN — For Declan Ganley, the European elections provided what seemed like an excellent opportunity to establish his fledgling Libertas Party as the first pan-European grouping to take on the bureaucracy in Brussels.

In Ireland in particular, with the electorate in a lather of anti-government fury, it seemed that all opposition groups stood to gain. But Ganley, the controversial businessman who led the successful "no" campaign in a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland last year, was defeated as a Euro candidate in his three-seat home constituency of North West, on Ireland’s Atlantic coast.

Libertas colleagues who contested two of the other three European constituencies in the Republic of Ireland, East and Dublin, were also rejected by voters. Throughout Europe, candidates associated with Libertas, which a month ago hoped for 100 seats in the European Parliament, failed to win popular support, and only a handful of its 531 runners in 14 EU states were successful.

The humiliation of the Libertas leader, who had promised to step down if defeated, could have far-reaching consequences for future European unity, which was threatened by the Irish rejection of the pro-reform Lisbon Treaty last June.

A majority of Irish voters is now convinced that EU membership saved the country from a fate like Iceland’s when the economic crisis came, and is less inclined to snub Ireland’s European partners again. Opinion polls indicate that a second referendum on the treaty, due in the autumn, will now succeed.

There were other factors at work against the 40-year-old Libertas leader, whose defeat in Ireland was met with scarcely disguised glee by establishment politicians. The conservative Catholic vote, which was expected to help Ganley in his rural constituency, has been set back by recent Catholic Church scandals. And many Irish voters didn’t like his association with far-right anti-immigration groups on the European continent. Another leader of the anti-treaty campaign last year, Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald, also lost her European seat in the Dublin constituency.

The European election in Ireland, which coincided with state-wide local elections and two by-elections for the Irish parliament, the Dail, was otherwise a disaster for the hugely unpopular Irish government.

Voters are furious about its perceived mishandling of the economy. Fianna Fail, the majority partner in the government and in essence the "ruling party" since independence, received the lowest share of the vote in its history, and its partner in government, the small Green Party, was just about wiped out (guilt by association).

Fianna Fail is seen as hand-in-glove with developers, the villains in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, who are held responsible with the banks for bringing the country to the brink of bankruptcy. The “anyone-but-Fianna Fail” mood is so strong that in the three-seat Dublin European constituency, a formerly safe Fianna Fail seat held by Eoin Ryan, was captured by Joe Higgins of the miniscule Socialist Party.

In the local elections, the Fianna Fail share of the vote dropped to 25 percent, 17 percent less than in the general election two years ago, and the main opposition party, Fine Gael, surged to 32 percent. Both parties are centrist and they were judged more on leadership, competence and integrity than ideology.

Party loyalty in Ireland has often been a family matter, going back to the origins of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in the Civil War of 1922, but this time many voters abandoned the habits of a lifetime and brought about a fundamental shift in Irish politics.

The two by-elections were just as devastating for Fianna Fail. In Dublin Central, the home turf of former Fianna Fail prime minister Bertie Ahern, his brother Maurice, could only come fifth behind working class hero Maureen O’Sullivan, a schoolteacher running as an independent.

In Dublin South, where the vacancy was caused by the death of Fianna Fail’s popular Seamus Brennan, his son Shay Brennan came fourth behind George Lee, who until a few weeks ago was the economics editor of Ireland’s main radio and television station, RTE, where he had a reputation for warning that the government’s policies were leading the country to ruin.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said the government had been “convicted” by the people and Eamon Gilmore, leader of the Labour party, which also polled strongly at 15 percent, called on the government to stand down. Though his Dail majority has been reduced to three, Prime Minister Brian Cowen said, “We’re absolutely determined and united as a government to proceed with policies that will bring order back to our public finances.”

In Northern Ireland, where voting is mostly along tribal lines, there was also a political upset. 

Sinn Fein topped the poll in the European election, the first time a party supporting Irish unity has achieved such a result in Northern Ireland’s nine-decade history. This came about because of divisions within the ranks of unionist parties representing the majority pro-British population. 

Northern Ireland constitutes one of 18 UK constituencies in the EU elections and returns three members of the European Parliament. Sinn Fein’s Bairbre de Brun toped the poll in a low turnout.

See here for a roundup of the results from across the EU.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Ireland:

Will corrupt leaders get their due?

The return of the spud

Ireland returns to an old love: the potato