A European country that is comfortable with consensus

Sunday 08 December 2013 04:45

Ireland is one modern European country where the people are not fed up with their consensus government and where, despite a recent sharp increase in immigration, they are not turning to parties of the racist right. Bertie Ahern has been rewarded by a surprisingly grateful nation with something close to the ultimate democratic endorsement: an overall majority under a system of proportional representation.

The search for a wider significance of the Irish election is bound to start with Sinn Fein, which is now the truly unionist party of these islands, represented in the Irish parliament, the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Assembly. But the national question played almost no part in last week's election. Sinn Fein has learnt enough about pavement politics in the North to know how to exploit a multi-member voting system which rewards energetic local casework. To the extent that the Sinn Fein vote was significant, it was as a vote for peace, and Mr Ahern was right to use the moment to press for the disbanding of the IRA.

In any case, Sinn Fein were outperformed by the Greens. Their success, too, is liable to be misinterpreted – in this case as a sign of anti-EU sentiment. This seems unlikely: the Greens' hostility to the EU is less important than the reasons for it, which lie in their policies for environmental sustainability. That is a valuable perspective to have in mainstream politics.

If there is a wider lesson, it is that the election in the Republic was a victory for prosperity. Unlike the Netherlands, which is used to steady economic growth, Ireland recalls a time of unemployment, emigration and a complex of national inferiority. Now, after a long stretch of growth, the country has surprised itself with another economic miracle since the coming of the euro.

The election was also a personal victory for Mr Ahern, and a well deserved one. With an international reputation as one of the peace brokers in Northern Ireland, and a personal reputation free from the taint of corruption which has attached to his party, Mr Ahern has skilfully reaped the reward for his compatriots' good fortune.

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