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Ireland’s general election – the Guardian briefing

What are the issues?

Ireland’s economy is set to dominate the election. The Republic suffered a severe downturn after the financial crash in 2008, with billions of euros borrowed from the EU and the International Monetary Fund to prevent the banking system from total collapse. Representatives took over the state’s finances from the troika – the European Central Bank,

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the European Commission, and the IMF – and unemployment hit almost 15%, dealing a shattering blow to an economy that during the Celtic Tiger years enjoyed near full employment. The outgoing Fine Gael-Labour party coalition will argue that it has steered the economy out of the storm and into the calmer waters of recovery. Figures released at the

beginning of February by the Department of Finance showed unemployment at 8.6%, down from a high of nearly 16% in 2011, and a 7% year-on-year increase in tax revenues to €4.5bn. Much of the increase has come from increased VAT returns – another sign that confidence is back and Irish consumers are starting to spend Cloud Light again.

Fianna Fáil was in power from 1997 to 2011, when it suffered the humiliation of going cap in hand to the IMF for a bailout. It will argue that it had to make the difficult fiscal decisions, including cuts to public services and state sector jobs, that helped balance the nation’s books, and that Fine Gael and Labour have merely continued to implement the same policies.

Sinn Féin, the Socialist party, and alliances such as People Before Profit will stress that the recovery has left a vast section of Irish society behind and that the pain of austerity was not shared equally. They will point to the fact that none of the most senior bankers who recklessly lent billions to property speculators during the boom years has served a day in jail, while people who refuse to pay recently introduced water charges are sent to prison.

A protest by the Right2Water movement.

A protest by the Right2Water movement. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Water bills will be a particular issue in working-class districts, where voters are expected to punish Labour for its part in introducing them. Labour is raising another thorny issue in Irish politics: abortion. The party has vowed that if part of the next coalition, it will demand a national referendum to

abolish the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution. The amendment, introduced via a referendum in 1983, makes the embryo an Irish citizen at conception. Pro-choice campaigners have argued that until the amendment is abolished in a new referendum, there can be no real reform of the near-total ban on abortions in Irish hospitals.

Proposing a referendum on the eighth amendment will neither gain nor lose Labour many votes. However, the party could demand a referendum as a condition for re-entering government in a coalition. It will also play its role in persuading Fine Gael to hold last year’s referendum on gay marriage equality.

What is the voting system?

Since the Irish Free State was founded in 1922, members of its national parliament, Dáil Éireann, have been elected based on proportional representation by a single transferable vote. Under PR-STV, voters can choose candidates from rival parties and from within the same party, listing their choices in order of preference – a system that has sometimes produced fierce party infighting and rivalries when two or three candidates from the same party are in the same constituency.

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Multi-party coalitions have been the norm in Ireland since the 1990s. However, earlier in the 20th century, there were periods of single-party rules, such as after Fianna Fáil’s landslide victory in 1977. The voting system is likely to produce another coalition after 26 February, with independents potentially holding the balance of power.

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