This was supposed to be Ireland's climate election – what happened?

Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent

Ireland had seemed poised for its first climate-centric general election, with concern about carbon emissions and species extinction expected to shape the battle for votes on 8 February.

Last year, after all, Ireland became only the second country in the world to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency. “Great news from Ireland!! Who is next?” Greta Thunberg tweeted at the time.

Momentum grew. The Green party surged in local and European elections and young climate activists led protests in Dublin. In an opinion poll, 55% of Irish voters named climate change as the most serious issue facing the planet and 54% said they were prepared to curb their living standards to combat the threat.

But now, with two weeks to go, most voters are tuning out on the environment. In an Irish Times opinion poll last week, just 7% of participants said climate change would have the most influence on their vote.

Instead of global, voters are thinking local. Forty per cent said healthcare was the most important issue and 32% said housing, reflecting widespread anger over hospital bed shortages, waiting lists, soaring rents and homelessness.


Fine Gael

Its name can be translated as family or tribe of the Irish. A centre-right party with a socially progressive tilt. In office since 2011, first led by Enda Kenny, then Leo Varadkar, with support from smaller coalition partners. Traces roots to Michael Collins and the winning side in Ireland’s 1922-23 civil war. The party traditionally advocates market economics and fiscal discipline. Appeals to the urban middle class and well-off farmers.

Fianna Fáil

Its name means Soldiers of Destiny. A centrist, ideologically malleable party that dominated Irish politics until it steered the Celtic Tiger economy over a cliff, prompting decade-long banishment to opposition benches. Under Micheál Martin, a nimble political veteran, it has clawed back support and may overtake Fine Gael as the biggest party and lead the next coalition government. Founded by Éamon de Valera, who backed the civil war’s losing side but turned Fianna Fáil into an election-winning machine.

Sinn Féin

Its name means We Ourselves, signifying Irish sovereignty. A leftwing republican party that competes in Northern Ireland as well as the Republic. Traces roots to 1905. Emerged in current form during the Troubles, when it was linked to the IRA. Peace in Northern Ireland helped Sinn Féin rebrand as a working-class advocate opposed to austerity. Under Mary Lou McDonald, a Dubliner without paramilitary baggage, Sinn Féin is the third-biggest party. But Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil deem it too toxic for any coalition.

Others

Partnership with Fine Gael during post-Celtic Tiger austerity tainted the centre-left Labour party but it seems poised to return to government in coalition with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. The political arm of the trade union movement, it is led by Brendan Howlin, a former teacher and government minister.

The Social Democrats and Solidarity-People Before Profit are part of an alphabet soup of smaller, more leftwing parties. The Greens, wiped out in 2011 after a ruinous coalition with Fianna Fáil, hope to win a clutch of seats on the back of climate crisis anxiety and youth-led protests. Independent TDs have prospered in recent elections, turning some into outsized players in ruling coalitions. Rory Carroll


Minor scandals and spats between party leaders have received more media attention than carbon emissions, notwithstanding Australia’s wildfires and ocean temperatures reaching record levels.

“So far it doesn’t appear that the climate is too far up the manifesto agenda,” said Niall Sargent, the editor of the Green News website. “Housing and other issues take precedence.”

Michael Fitzmaurice, a turf-cutting farmer and independent politician who is campaigning to keep his Galway-Roscommon seat in the Dáil, Ireland’s parliament, put it this way: “Climate change is an issue – I wouldn’t say serious.”

Ireland’s system of proportional representation and multi-seat constituencies can make politics not just local but micro – people expect TDs (MPs) to help with medical appointments and lost driving licences. A politician who lingers on national let alone international issues risks being seen as out of touch.

Voters interviewed at random in County Cavan said they would vote for candidates who could deliver more street lighting, hospital beds and police. No one mentioned the climate unless prompted.

Concern over the environment has not evaporated. Activists from Extinction Rebellion, Christian Aid, the National Women’s Council and other groups have been canvassing voters, urging them to raise climate issues with candidates from all parties.

Opinion polls give the Green party about 8% support, rising to 15% in Dublin, putting it on course to perhaps double or triple its current meagre tally of three Dáil seats.

That could be enough to enter into a government led by Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, big party rivals that are both expected to need smaller parties to form a ruling coalition. Environmentalists hope Green ministers could then drive policy changes in agriculture and transport, which account for most of Ireland’s carbon emissions.

Tate Donnelly, a Green party candidate in Cavan-Monaghan, on the border with Northern Ireland, illustrates the environmental movement’s potential and constraints.

At 21, the economics and mathematics student at Trinity University is the youngest candidate running for parliament. An articulate campaigner, he sits on the party’s national executive committee and works with a thinktank on social change. A Twitter video announcing his candidacy has drawn almost 100,000 views.

“I’m not into the environment, I’m into survival,” Donnelly said in an interview. “Climate change and biodiversity loss represent an existential threat. We all need to be on board.”

Ireland is one of the EU’s worst offenders in terms of carbon emissions and faces fines of more than €250m for missing targets. Changing course could mean raising carbon taxes, culling cattle herds and banning turf harvesting – unpopular measures, especially with rural voters.

Donnelly said Ireland could curb emissions without hurting vulnerable communities. “Rural people care about the climate but they’re not been given a way out. People who cut bogs are not doing it to ruin the planet, they’re doing it to make a living.”

Overhauling the EU’s agriculture policy and finding extra revenues – such as Apple’s €14bn tax bill, which the company and the Irish government are both trying to quash in European courts – could fund a just transition, said Donnelly.

It’s a pitch tailored to voters who associate climate activism with urban elites and higher cost of living. Donnelly does not know if it will resonate. “I could do really badly or get elected. I’ve no clue.”

Veteran climate activists question Ireland’s green credentials. Only six TDs were in the chamber when the Dáil declared the climate and biodiversity emergency. Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael-led government waited until this month to announce a “radical” climate action bill, which promptly withered upon the Dáil’s dissolution.

“They’re kicking the can down the road. I don’t think they have any credibility on environmental issues,” said Cara Augustenborg, an environmental scientist who advises the president, Michael Higgins.

However, many voters are taking climate change seriously, partly in response to extreme weather events that have chilled and baked Ireland. “We’ve seen Green waves in recent elections. We should see that trend again,” said Augustenborg.

Fitzmaurice, the TD for Galway-Roscommon, thinks – and hopes – she is wrong. As chair of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, he represents people who harvest peat bogs, marshy terrain that for centuries was drained, cut and burned as fuel but whose use in this way is now being phased out because of the emissions.

“It would be a disaster for the country if the Green party ended up in government,” said Fitzmaurice. Ireland should not “crucify” rural communities on the altar of climate change, he added. “Everyone can do their little bit. But Ireland is not going to solve the world’s problems.”