February 25, 2011 3:06 pm

Strong turn-out for Ireland’s election

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Voting was brisk as Ireland went to the polls on Friday in a general election expected to see the ruling coalition swept from power – the first eurozone government to face electoral defeat since the onset of the debt crisis.

Early indications suggest turn-out is well up on the 2007 general election and could be as high as 75 per cent, with a fifth of those eligible having voted by midday in some regions.

In some areas there were queues at polling stations with reports of large numbers of young people voting as polls opened at 7 am.

The result will probably not be known until Sunday with the manual count in the 43 constituencies starting on Saturday.

Ireland is on course to witness one of the biggest political changes since 1932 with the centre right Fine Gael party set for victory and within sight of its first ever outright majority.

The result would mark the worst ever defeat for Fianna Fáil, which after 14 years in power is blamed for the property and banking crash and the humiliating bail-out by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the harsh budgetary measures now being taken to address the crisis.

Maurice Manning, a historian and chancellor of the National University of Ireland who is a former Fine Gael politician, described the mood at the Haddington Road polling station in Dublin’s Ballsbridge where he had just voted, as “purposeful”.

“It reminds me of when Mary Robinson was elected in 1990”, he said, referring to the 1990 election of the Trinity College law professor at Ireland’s first woman president.

Another voter said whether Fine Gael achieve the necessary 83 seats for an outright majority “will depend on the bounce of the ball” in the fight for the final seat in many constituencies.

Paddy Power, the bookmakers made Fine Gael odds on favourite to form a government with Labour, its traditional coalition partners.

Amid the worst economic collapse in the country’s 89 year history, and after a campaign dominated by voter concerns over jobs, unemployment and the return of emmigration, the electorate appears to have swung behind Fine Gael and its leader Enda Kenny, a former tourism minister and one-time primary school teacher.

Fine Gael has been polling consistently just less than 40 per cent of first preference voters, ahead of Labour on about 20 per cent and Fianna Fáil on 18 per cent. Sinn Fein, the party better known for its former links with the Irish Republican Army paramilitary organisation in Northern Ireland, is expected to double its six seats, with independents also predicted to do well.

Any new government faces a daunting task as Ireland administers an austerity package which will see €9bn ($12.4bn) in public expenditure cuts and tax increases over the next three years as the country seeks to stabilise its public finances and restore credibility with the debt markets.

Mr Kenny and his Labour counterpart Eamon Gilmore have pledged to seek a renegotiation of the terms of the EU-IMF bail-out, amid worries that with growth stalling Ireland may find it difficult to meet its international debt obligations.

Richard Bruton, a Fine Gael finance spokesman, confirmed on Thursday the party had enlisted Pat Cox, the Irish-born former president of the European parliament, to support the party “in the transition” to power.

Mr Bruton said the appointment was “to assist us in ensuring we make the early decisions if we do get a mandate”.

He said: “We have to be ambitious about restructuring government in this country. The tragedy in this country is that the political culture of the last number of years allowed the growth of quangos, the growth of bad work practices where there wasn’t the changes necessary. We now are with our backs to the wall. We have to find efficiencies”.

He said the alternative was “cuts in pays and cuts in front line doctors, nurses and teachers. If we want to avoid that, and this is what Fine Gael is determined to do, we have to look at very radically different ways of doing things. This isn’t the time to be half hearted about the need for reform.”

Pat Rabbitte, a former Labour party leader, played down business concerns over the potentially fractious nature of a Fine Gael-Labour government.

Darragh O’Brien of Fianna Fáil said the party “we will do a lot better than is predicted,” and he pledged that Fianna Fáil in opposition “will play a constructive part in the Dail.”

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