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Ireland's General Election Could Finally End Almost 100 Years of Civil War Politics

Ireland is still coming out of a major recession, with young people telling VICE News that the economy, abortion rights, and climate change will deciding factors when deciding who to vote for.

by Sally Hayden
Feb 26 2016, 5:15pm

Photo by Aidan Crawley/EPA

Ireland goes to the polls today to vote in a general election that could break the civil war politics that have defined the country's governments for almost a century.

The results of Friday's election could end the major historical division between the main parties Fine Gael, led by current Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny, and Fianna Fáil, led by Micheál Martin, which were formed based on separate sides of the civil war almost a century ago.

The Irish Civil War was fought between 1922 and 1923 over whether to accept a treaty offered by Britain which allowed the 26 southern counties of Ireland to become a so-called "Free State," but forced Irish parliamentarians to swear allegiance to the British monarchy while leaving the UK with control over three naval bases. 

Fianna Fáil members opposed the treaty, and refused to enter parliament until the 1930s because of their unwillingness to take the oath of allegiance, while Fine Gael supported the agreement.

Because of this historical divide, there hasn't traditionally been a left-right divide in Irish politics, with both main parties centrist and relatively conservative.

No party is expected to achieve an overall majority, and so these two may make unlikely coalition partners. Health minister Leo Varadkar has said this pairing would be a "nightmare," but some pollsters say it is the most plausible outcome.

This could also result in another notable consequence. Republican party Sinn Féin could gain as much as 17 percent of the overall vote — and a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would allow them to become the major opposition party.

Friday's general election is also expected to see a record number of young people casting a ballot. A survey by Thinkhouse found that 83 percent of Irish citizens aged 18-35 would vote in the general election — making it the largest turnout among young people ever. Of those, 60 percent were planning to vote for non-traditional candidates, including independent individuals and the Green party.

Some of this age group are recently returned emigrants. It's now seven years since the global financial crash which resulted in Ireland's bail-out by the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) for billions of euros, and the so-called "brain-drain" of educated, young Irish people is slowing down, with many of those who left during the recession recently coming home again.

Referred to as "Celtic Tiger cubs" — the kids of the two-decade long economic boom coined as the "Celtic Tiger" — Ireland's young people grew up in an age of increasing prosperity. Following the crash, many of those left the country as part of a huge outflow: 89,000 people left between April 2012 and 2013 alone. Those who emigrated were predominantly the young and educated. A report produced by University College Cork (UCC) noted that emigrants were much more likely to have a higher standard of education than the population in general.

Emigration became a major political issue, with groups with names like We're Coming Back and We're Not Leaving campaigning for emigrant votes over the last few years, or arguing against emigration as a road to economic recovery.

Last Christmas a government-run campaign saw posters placed in airports urging emigrants to return home again to work, with slogans like: "Make your Christmas commute shorter next year. Come #hometowork in 2016."

Unemployment rates have fallen for three-and-a-half years now, and top companies including Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, have set up their headquarters in capital city Dublin — partly enticed by the country's low corporation tax.

Magella Harkin and Garda Margaret Byrne carry a ballot box from a boat to a polling station on the island of Inishfree, where two people voted, off the coast of Donegal in Ireland, February 25, 2016. (Photo by Aidan Crawley/EPA)

David Burns, 26, from Wexford, lived in Paris for three years, before returning to Ireland on May 5, 2015, just in time to campaign in the same-sex marriage referendum later that month, which saw Ireland become the first country in the world to approve gay marriage by popular vote, with 62 percent coming out in support of it.

"Marriage equality for me signified a kind of Ireland that I wanted to be a part of," he told VICE News. "I came back mostly for my folks but was really astounded at the kind of unity of the country behind it. Ireland 2015 seemed to be very much about social change."

Burns said that the marriage equality decision made emigrants see a "new side" to Ireland. "More and more people are thinking of coming back now — people [who] would have left in 2010, 2012, and now they're deciding will I stay and have a career here or will I return home."

Related: Why Are So Many Young People Leaving Ireland?

He said in the aftermath of the referendum the upcoming general election had seemed very "promising," but the possibility of a Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael government was making him more despondent.

"I can't tell you how disappointing it is to think about the possibility of a socially conservative government," he said.

Burns is now working in communications for the student union at University College Dublin (UCD). He said for the students that he represents, the biggest issue is growing costs and the threat of student fees, plus the amount of public sector funding has already dropped from 80 percent in 2008 to 65 percent this year.

On the large percentage of young people expected to vote in the election, Burns said: "This would be record breaking. No one has taken that into account."

Another young Irish emigrant is Maeve Hoban-Logan, 26, who has lived in Nice, France, for two years, but plans to move home again this September.

"The job market's a lot better than it was when I left," she said, adding that small things about France had begun to annoy her. "It's probably rose-tinted because I'm still away," she admitted.

"I think Ireland's in a really interesting situation because we've kind of gotten out of the big recession, but even if it was crap at the time we were getting out of it it's much better now," she continued. 

"There are so many big tech companies coming to Ireland now because they're copping on that we have a very capable work force… And then Dublin is a really good city... though sometimes slightly too hipstery for my taste."

"People went away but they're coming back, they're aware that we need to keep Ireland a young, dynamic, interesting country, and move it away from the more archaic church-reliant society."

Traveling home from London especially to vote was Orlaith Delargy, 24, who has been studying environmental economics at Imperial College London for the last five months. She planned to vote for the Green Party.

"The most important issue for me this election is the environment and climate change," she said. "This government has been virtually silent on these issues at a time when they have taken center stage globally, as in the UN agreement in Paris last December."

Related: 'I'm in Trouble': The Women Boarding Ireland's Illegal Abortion Bus

Other key issues for Delargy, she said, are housing and homelessness, income inequality, reproductive rights, and voting rights for emigrants.

"I believe the situation [in Ireland] has improved for a select few. Better job prospects may mean that young people are not emigrating in the numbers they used to, but the cost of living and establishing a life in Ireland is still prohibitive. Current policies are skewed to benefit older generations while young people face high rents and are all but excluded from the property ladder."

Delargy said she feels uninspired by the current government. "What's most disappointing is the lack of leadership. It feels like Ireland is always dragged kicking and screaming to effect important social changes, like reproductive rights. We act eventually because the EU tell us we have to, rather than [the] government being proactive."

Ireland's current government has made some changes hailed as liberal, such as announcing plans to open supervised injecting rooms for addicts, as well as presiding over the same-sex marriage referendum.

However, separation of church and state also remains an important issue for many, with nearly 97 percent of state-funded private schools still remaining under the control of the Catholic Church.

For other voters, abortion legislation has been a decisive issue. Ireland's constitution guarantees equal right to life to a mother and a fetus, meaning abortion is illegal in almost every incidence, including cases of rape, incest, and fatal fetal abnormality.

Economic problems also remain, with the recovery moving faster for some than others. Last year saw tens of thousands take to the streets over water charges, originally ordered by European Central Bank, IMF, and the EU in a bid to boost the government's income from taxes. During the campaigning period, a teenager was captured on camera telling Tanaiste (deputy prime minister) Joan Burton to "shove your water bills up your fiscal space."

Related: Ireland Just Became the First Country to Approve Gay Marriage by a Popular Vote

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd