DUBLIN, Feb. 25, 2011 (Xinhua News Agency) -- In the Irish parliamentary elections being held today, it's definitely the economy.
The country's economic difficulties constitute far and away the most important issue, and for the three main parties in this election, Fianna Fail (Republican Party), Fine Gael (United Irish Party) and Labor, there are few policy differences in addressing the economy.
"Their hands are tied by the constraints and commitments that are part of the loan provision," said Professor Michael Gallagher, head of the Political Science Department at Dublin's Trinity College. "The terms of the bailout have been agreed by the outgoing government with the European Union (EU), the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in late November last year."
Indeed, the rescue package means that policy options regarding the economy, financial sector, and taxation are the most constrained they have ever been, with an endorsement of an austerity plan that will be in effect until 2015.
Both leaders of Fine Gael and the Labor party have advocated renegotiating terms of the bailout loans in their campaign promises, either for a lower interest rate or longer term of payment, but Fianna Fail, the party that negotiated the original loan believes that renegotiating the terms would be unlikely.
Second on the opinion polls of the most pressing issues was employment. At the forefront of many of the political discussions and featured on campaign posters is the fear that Irish people will need to immigrate overseas to find work.
"I come from a generation where everyone left the country. We took it for granted that we would have to leave to find work. I came back to a different Ireland in the 1990s, where people could expect a different future," said Trinity College lecturer and award-winning poet, Peter Sirr. "It is a terrible indictment of a country to have to export their young."
According to predictions by Ireland's Central Statistics Office, some 100,000 people will emigrate over the next two years, more than double the numbers for 2009 and 2010. The last peak emigration was in 1989 when 44,000 left Ireland.
Job creation is closely tied to the country's economic recovery. All three of the parties have been consistent in the stance that Ireland is a small export-driven open economy sensitive to the vicissitudes experienced by its global trade partners. An economic priority for all three is to attract foreign investment and to develop new markets for Irish exports in economies that have seen faster recovery, this hopefully leading to more jobs in Ireland and a boost for domestic businesses and services.
Reform has also been a key issue addressed by all three of the main parties, specifically in the public sector and in healthcare reform, with Fine Gael promising the largest cuts to the public sector, that many voters see as a welcomed change.
Mary Connaire, an executive at an international IT firm, said the public sector reform was one of the reasons why she opted to vote for Fine Gael this time rather than Labor, whom she had voted for in past elections. "Labor would protect unions and the public service," she said. "We definitely need reform in the public sector. The government has become top heavy."
Fianna Fail has proposed a Oireachtas (parliament) reform requiring cabinet ministers to step down from their constituencies and to allow non-TDs (members of parliament) into the cabinet.
Fine Gael's proposals focus on open government and on reforming the public services. It was the only party to propose opening all government data.
The Labor party is particularly strong on open government measures, including reforms for the freedom of information (FOI), protecting whistleblowers, and regulating lobbying. The Labor party also proposed establishing a ministry of public sector reform.
In health care reform, Fine Gael and Labor both proposed a universal health insurance scheme based on the successful Dutch system where hospitals would be paid for each patient treated, rather than the current policy of given block funding to the country's Health Service Executive (HSE). Healthcare in Ireland currently accounts for 12 percent of the tax expenditure.
But while all the parties recognize that the economy, jobs and reform are the key issues in this election, their promises ring false to some voters. "Where are they getting their numbers?" said Jane Doyle, an independent filmmaker and mother of two. "How much will it cost after they get into office."
"I distrust any of their promises," said Keelin Murphy, owner of a spa in County Dublin. "Frankly, what resonates with me most are policies with new vision, new thinking and dynamism. What this country needs is a good shake up."