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Irish election could produce historic shift in government

Ireland is poised for a major shift toward more conservative government at the polls today, spurred by a financial crisis that has left it with enormous debt, a housing bust, and high unemployment.

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“There is nothing to suggest that Fine Gael … would have pursued economic policies that were any different from those pursued by Fianna Fáil," she says. “Fine Gael say they see opportunity in crisis. Unfortunately for the great majority of Irish society, the opportunity they see is a business one, which has a fundamental disregard for equality, fairness, or civil society.”

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The reform agenda

Ireland, which spent its first seven decades as an independent country in grinding penury, stunned the world with its sudden growth in the 1990s. But its precipitous fall from 'Celtic Tiger' stature has put the focus on fundamental questions. Alongside the familiar mantra of jobs and education, the 2011 general election campaign has been dominated by calls for political reform.

All parties – including the current Fianna Fáil government – have made political reform a central plank. The list of promises is almost endless, including abolition of the unelected upper house of parliament, the appointment to government of unelected ministers, sweeping changes to the electoral system, reducing the number of seats in parliament, and even rewriting the Constitution.

Paschal Donohoe, a Fine Gael hopeful likely to pick up a seat in Dublin Central, the constituency of Ireland’s boom-time former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, says his party will change how Irish politics works.

“We need two things,” he says. “Firstly, a political system that is smaller and more efficient. The second thing we need is a Dáil [lower house of parliament] that is more powerful and has more checks and balances.”

Labour Party finance spokeswoman Joan Burton says her party’s proposals have not had a fair hearing.

“The Labour Party has had very little newspaper support, but support on the ground is much stronger,” she says.

Ms. Burton says Fine Gael’s proposed reforms are not enough: “There’s reform and there’s reform. The reform we need is a proper cap on corporate donations and control of lobbyists. We currently have no control or even registration of lobbyists,” she says.

The sudden appearance of political reform as an issue has raised a few eyebrows, though.

"They're thrashing around looking for a way to make Irish politics work again, but these top-down reforms are doomed to failure. For a start, many of them make things worse, but they are also conscious attempts to circumvent the electorate,” says Kevin Bean, professor of Irish Studies at Britain’s University of Liverpool.

“Despite the use of the term ‘reform’, it’s really all about maintaining the concentration of power in hands of the political class,” he says.

Ms. O’Sullivan says the election is more as a change of faces than policies.

“More troubling and surprising than anything else is the abject failure of imagination on display,” she says. “At a time when everything we thought to be true has been exposed as false, a reasonable expectation would be that, at the very least, the terms of political discourse could have been widened to include some talk about what kind of society we want to live in.”

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