Uncertainty over Dublin, but also new hope

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The Independent Online
Viewed from Malmo, or Dusseldorf, Lyon or even London, the election result in the Irish Republic is hard to pin down. Does ideology as it is understood elsewhere really play so little part in the national politics of the Republic - a country that is ostensibly one of the most European of Europeans? In France, as in Great Britain a month ago, the electoral debate is more or less about "big" issues - the creation of a common currency in the European Union, joblessness and its social effects, how to live with globalisation, the proper weight of government in the economy and civil society, decency in public life. Of course these themes resonated in the Republic's election. But for the most part it turned on personalities and parties differing only a fraction on the big issues, divided only by the obscure history of post-partition nationalism. The governing coalition that has been ejected was reputed both at home and abroad to be doing a reasonable job - the Irish boom continues, even if it fails to wash over those Dublin estates where drugs and crime are rife. Perhaps the Republic's electorate is indeed more "European" in its enthusiasm to throw serving politicians overboard without entertaining high expectations of their successors.

Making sense of the Irish election result is made difficult because of the operations of its particular brand of proportional representation. The left has just done well in Britain and France. The Republic's Labour Party - leftwards inclined, up to a point - lost heavily. But why? Was it merely that Dick Spring and his colleagues failed to build up the dense and local constituency loyalty which seems so important in Ireland?

Fianna Fail, the party benefiting from the electorate's itchiness, promises little identifiable change in social or economic policies. Under Bertie Ahern, the victorious party is "greener" than its old rival, Fine Gael, though Northern Ireland played little obvious part in the contest. Of the principal Irish parties, Fianna Fail seems least able to connect the country's European-derived prosperity with its relationship with both the United Kingdom and that province of the United Kingdom where sovereignty is disputed and terrorist insurgency still so bloodily active. It is true that in the new electoral arithmetic the fellow-travellers of united Ireland extremism have to be factored in. The voters of Cavan and Monaghan showed their fellow country people in a poor light by electing a Sinn Fein representative, not just because Sinn Fein supports the murder of Irish people, but because it is a proto-fascist party. But does this mean Dublin now threatens to turn a little aside from Europe in favour of a wallow in atavistic nationalism?

That would itself be an extreme judgement. Of course Ireland is not the only European country where nationalism shapes political choice - look at Italy, or Spain, let alone the appeal of the far right in France. But there is no irredentist problem in Continental Europe to compare with the problem of the Irish land border. The Republic's politics are "unmodern" in that the mainstream parties are still rooted in their 1920s identities; only the minority parties such as the Progressive Democrats carry genes recognisably derived from the European left-right continuum.

It would be wrong to interpret the result as much of a swing towards republicanism - while noting the habit of Irish voters who otherwise despise the terrorists to wink at politicians who like to don the green and censure those (such as John Bruton) who attempt to reach out to their Irish fellow country-people in the Unionist community in the North. Post-election rhetoric from Mr Ahern has been ill-advised. To try and make of the British and Irish governments respective "protectors" of the Unionist and Nationalist communities in Northern Ireland is simple-minded - except as an echo of the sort of language which played well in 1923.

Ireland is a small country with a limited supply of political talent. But even when personnel are thin on the ground, the proposal to resurrect the former Fianna Fail prime minister, Albert Reynolds, as an ambassador rings oddly. His rehabilitation after a spectacular resignation is hardly complete; and even if it were, he remains a party factotum whose appeal to the Unionists must be limited, at the least.

And yet, the broad conditions look more favourable for a push to engage the terrorists/Sinn Fein in talks than they have looked for some time. Here is a new government in Dublin, a newish government in London, with a Secretary of State still enjoying much goodwill. Sinn Fein's poll victories may help persuade republican leaders of the virtues of democratic politics; the Americans are still around as brokers and instigators of peace. Hence Mr Ahern's enthusiasm for contacts with Sinn Fein, which antedate the election campaign, and will continue until he becomes prime minister; hence also his body language designed to show Sinn Fein he "cares" by distancing himself from John Bruton's overtures to the Unionists.

There is, in truth, a lot of common ground between the Blair government and Dublin over pre-conditions for talks. No one is insisting on de-commissioning; there have been goodwill gestures aplenty from the London end. What has the response been? Mo Mowlam has already learnt how uncomfortable it is to permit talks with Sinn Fein one week and receive reports on the IRA's latest bomb outrage the next. Mr Ahern is welcome to try his hand but no government, north or south, can negotiate with a movement that claims the right to leave bombs even as its representatives enter official committee rooms.