In Ireland | Sunday Mail | August 2015

Despite the steady summer downpour, busloads of tourists file into the car-park at Drumcliffe churchyard in County Sligo on the west coast of Ireland.

Like me, they’ve come to see the final resting place of William Butler Yeats, the man widely regarded as Ireland’s greatest poet.

Yeats’ headstone, which sits just outside the church building, bears a striking inscription – a short stanza from a poem he published a few months before his death in January 1939, at the age of 73.

‘Cast a cold Eye / On Life, on Death / Horseman, pass by.’

Yeats is better known, however, for lines composed more than two decades earlier, in response to a key moment in Irish political history.

‘All changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born.’

Yeats was writing about the failed 1916 Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland and subsequent execution, by British forces, of 16 rebel leaders — including the Scot James Connolly — at Kilmainham jail in Dublin.

The executions helped galvanise Irish opinion in favour of independence, which was finally achieved in 1922.

Next year marks the first centenary of the Rising, and with a general election on the horizon, the Irish Republic finds itself at another crossroads.

Although Ireland’s economy is growing again — it suffered a severe recession during the global financial crash and had to be bailed out by the EU and the IMF — many Irish citizens are still reeling from the effects of biting austerity cuts.

Under successive governments, water charges were introduced, wages slashed and public sector workers laid-off.

These reforms plunged Ireland’s political class into crisis but delivered a much-needed boost to Sinn Féin, who have never reached the same heights of popularity in southern Ireland that they have traditionally enjoyed among republican voters in the north.

Now averaging around 20 per cent in the polls, Sinn Féin hope to match the success of leftwing parties on the European continent — notably Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain — by making big gains at the forthcoming election, expected to take place in the Spring.

Further down the west coast, support for a change in Ireland’s political leadership is palpable.

“Sinn Féin’s appeal is that they are not part of the conservative establishment,” Fergal Anderson, a farmer and anti-austerity campaigner in Galway, 80 miles south of County Sligo, tells me.

“They are perceived as being less friendly to big business, as not part of the cabal of developers, big farmers and financial marketeers that has run the country for the last few years.”

Anderson’s views are common.

According to a recent survey, backing for mainstream parties – such as Fianna Fáil, Labour and Fine Gael – now lags behind that for ‘independent and other’ candidates by a margin of ten points.

Yet Sinn Féin may struggle to fully capitalise on the mood of public disquiet.

While the party casts itself as a champion of radical causes south of the border, at Stormont, Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly, Sinn Féin politicians work alongside rightwing Democratic Unionists as part of a power-sharing administration.

“Sinn Féin are trying to ride two horses at once,” John Barry, professor of politics at Queen’s University Belfast, says.

“They are a party of government in Northern Ireland, which obliges them – although they deny this – to implement British government policy, including Tory welfare reforms.

“But in the south they are riding high in the polls, almost like the Syriza of the Republic in terms of their opposition to austerity.

“It will be interesting to see how they manage this tension as the election approaches.”

Even if Sinn Féin fail to make a decisive electoral breakthrough, Ireland seems braced for more political turbulence.

As in post-referendum Scotland, people here have discovered — or rediscovered — that powerful elites are susceptible to pressure when applied with enough force from below.

“There is more anger at the establishment than at any time in my memory,” William Hederman, a Dublin-based photojournalist, tells me over a beer by the Liffey.

“It came to a head last year with the introduction of water charges, a flat rate not based on income.

“There has been a huge campaign of non-payment and civil disobedience which has empowered communities and brought many new people into politics.”

Later, while walking through the Irish capital, I stopped to look at a mural on a street not far from the General Post Office, the scene of some of the most intense fighting during the 1916 Rising.

The image, rendered in stark blue and pink, was of Éamon de Valera.

One of the few surviving 1916 revolutionaries — he was spared execution by virtue of his American citizenship — de Valera ran the country, from an array of posts including Taoiseach and President, for decades after independence.

Yeats once described the famously adversarial politician as a “living argument.”

And when you think about, that’s not a bad way of describing Ireland, either.

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