The rise of the radical left as a political force in Ireland could lead to a new opening for improved cooperation between Moscow and Dublin.
St. Patrick's Day Parade in Moscow, Russia on March 22, 2009. Photo: AP
On Feb. 26, Ireland held a general election, which resulted in major losses for the governing parties. The immediate beneficiaries were Ireland’s far-left and left-leaning nationalist parties. As a result of popular dissatisfaction with the nation’s economic austerity programs, Ireland could be more amenable to rebuilding business and trade links with Russia.
Economic growth through austerity
To understand the election results, it is necessary to bear in mind the contradictory nature of Ireland's recent social and economic development.
On one hand, the country, having successfully exited an EU/IMF bailout program several years ago, currently has excellent economic figures.
GDP growth last year approached 7 percent and GDP per capita is $53,250; public debt as a percentage of national spending has decreased by almost 90 percent in four years; and the unemployment rate, which was 15 percent in 2012, is now in single figures.
However, there is a flip side to all these genuine statistical successes accomplished by Enda Kenny's government in its four years in power: these macroeconomic results have been achieved thanks to austerity.
According to Dr. Michelle Norris of University College Dublin, bankers have increased their incomes, but a large proportion of Irish people have permanently empty pockets and are still paying for the unprecedented austerity that has squeezed the public sector, education, healthcare and construction.
Today, although Ireland is generally prosperous, roughly 140,000 people sit on waiting lists for social housing, and 400,000 (nearly a tenth of the population) live in consistent poverty. As such, Ireland is an example of a socially divided society.
Losses for the parties of government
The election showed that many people were indeed dissatisfied with the government's social and economic policies. Five years ago, Fine Gael ("Family of the Irish") and the Labour Party won 56 percent of the vote between them and formed a coalition, but on Feb. 26, their combined support fell to 32 percent.
With 25.5 percent of the vote, the center-right Christian democratic Fine Gael only just held on to first place, winning 49 out of 158 seats compared to 76 out of 166 in 2011. Meanwhile, the election was a disaster for the junior partner in the coalition: Labour's support fell by two-thirds, and with just 6.6 percent of the votes, it will have only 6 seats.
This unhappiness with the government's austerity policies has translated into unprecedented success for the radical left in Ireland. With almost 14 percent of the vote, Sinn Féin – a left-wing nationalist party supporting a united Ireland of the Republic and the North – took third place.
The Anti-Austerity Alliance – People Before Profit, a coalition of far-left parties, will also be represented in the new parliament. In total, the radical left won 17 percent of the vote.
Richard Boyd Barrett, an expert from the Institute of International and European Affairs, believes that today the age of ruling parties is over.
It is also obvious that Ireland will soon have a new government. Ironically, however, it could well retain roughly the same economic policy.
After all, coming second in the election was the right-wing liberal Fianna Fáil ("Republican Party"). Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have swapped power regularly since 1932, but today there is no great difference between them politically, and in theory they are quite capable of forming a broad coalition in order to keep the left out of government.
The future of Moscow – Dublin cooperation
Ireland is not viewed as a "significant" European country in Russia.
For evidence of this, one only has to recall that diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Ireland were not established until 1973, although historically the Soviet Union certainly sympathized with the Irish national freedom movement.
Accordingly, Ireland does not have the same weight within the European Union as, say, Germany or France in terms of foreign policy or economics for Russia. For example, Ireland accounted for just 0.4 percent of Russia's exports in 2014, compared to 38 percent of Britain's and 10.5 percent of America's.
Dublin's foreign policy generally mirrors the EU's common foreign policy, but with one very important exception: the Irish Republic is a neutral state, and although it is a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program almost all its parliamentary parties today support maintaining the country's status as neutral, outside the Atlantic alliance.
It is worth noting that Irish traditions and customs are popular with young people in Russia. Scarcely a major city in Russia today does not have an Irish pub, and celebrations of Ireland's St. Patrick's Day in March have become a tradition in Moscow.
Russia's National Library of Foreign Literature in Moscow holds regular "Irish readings," while Dublin is always happy to welcome performers from Russia, such as from the Bolshoi Theatre. Philip McDonagh, a former Irish ambassador to Russia, notes that cultural ties have linked Ireland and Russia for more than 200 years.
Despite the fact that, like the other EU member states, Ireland supported the Crimea-related sanctions introduced against Russia in 2014, Russia, as President Putin has made clear, intends to develop its all-round cooperation with Ireland in the future.
Apart from the cultural aspect, there is also scope for trade and economic cooperation. Admittedly, the total volume of trade between the two countries is not great: in 2014, it amounted to just $1.6 billion, and from Russia's point of view the balance was clearly negative (at almost $1 billion). The bulk of Russia's exports to Ireland are comprised of mineral fuel and oil (42 percent) and fertilizers (36 percent).
Russia's imports from Ireland, on the other hand, are both more expensive and more diverse: pharmaceutical products (24 percent), hardware and tools (13 percent), perfumery (12.5 percent), inorganic chemicals (10.5 percent) and alcoholic beverages (7 percent).
The fact that the total value of medicines imported to Russia from Ireland has increased by more than 50 percent in the past two years is just one illustration of how, in the likely event of the mutual sanctions being lifted, the new Irish government will have every opportunity to strengthen business ties with Russia significantly.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.