Ireland’s political earthquake

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Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald (C) speaks to media as she arrives at a count center in Dublin, Ireland, 09 February 2020. [EPA-EFE/AIDAN CRAWLEY]

Sinn Féin made only one mistake: had it run multiple candidates in its strongest constituencies, it could have become the largest party in the Irish parliament by a long lead, writes Dick Roche.

Dick Roche is a former Fianna Fáil politician. He was the minister of state for European affairs when Ireland conducted the two referendums on the Treaty of Lisbon of the European Union, in 2008 and 2009.

The results in the Irish General Election have been described as a political earthquake – the headline is not hyperbole. The sense that the tectonic plates of Irish politics shifted substantially on 8 February is hard to dismiss.

Sinn Féin, a populist left-wing party which espouses the reunification of Ireland and the end of British involvement in Northern Ireland, achieved results which less than 6 months ago could not have been predicted.

At the time of the 2019 European elections, the conventional wisdom was that Sinn Féin was in decline. It had lost seats in local council elections and in the EU Parliament.

In Saturday’s General Election Sinn Féin candidates topped the poll in the majority of the seats which the party contested in the 39 constituencies that elect the 160 Deputies to Dáil Eireann, the lower House of the Irish Parliament.

The Party elected Deputies in constituencies where they had never won seats before and did so in spectacular style.

In Dublin West, a constituency that elects four Deputies, the Sinn Féin candidate won the first seat ahead of the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. He received 12,456 first preference votes: the Taoiseach received 8,478 votes and under Ireland’s proportional representation through the single transferable (PR-STV) voting system, had to wait until the fifth round of vote counting to squeak over the line and achieve the necessary quota to be elected.

In Cork South Central another 4 seat constituency the Sinn Féin candidate won his seat ahead of the Leader of the Opposition Micheál Martin and the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

In the election campaign Sinn Féin, which aligns with GUE in the EU Parliament, capitalised on discontent on housing, a key concern for young people, health, on proposals to raise retirement pension age and on the ‘need for change’. In contrast, the traditional lead parties failed to connect.

The Fine Gael party [an EPP member] ran a tone-deaf campaign focused on its economic performance in government, the Brexit challenge and the need for stability. It was not what the voters wanted to hear. Fianna Fáil [a member of Renew Europe] also ran a campaign that did not resonate.

It sought to portray itself as ‘a party of change’, the alternative to the current administration and had difficulties differentiating itself from policies which it had supported via a confidence and supply arrangement that kept a minority government since 2016 and from residual memories of the 2008 economic collapse while Fianna Fáil was in government.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Sinn Féin performance is that it managed to convince voters that its past and in particular its association with the Provisional IRA was ancient history, while at the same time holding up the past failures of its competitors as the reason for change.

The party did make one mistake – it ran 42 candidates in the election. In total, the Dáil has 160 seats. Had Sinn Féin run multiple candidates in its strongest constituencies it would have returned to the Dáil in an even stronger position than it is: it could probably have been the largest party by a long lead.

The major question now is who will form the next Irish Government. Realistically forming a Government would seem to require the participation of two of the three main parties, a number of the smaller parties and some of the non-party Deputies who will take up the seats in the 33rd Dáil.

Reaching agreement on the shape of the new Government will not be easy and the process of coalition-building could be long and messy.

Through the election campaign, Leo Varadkar, the leader of Fine Gael, and Michaél Martin, the Fianna Fáil leader, both emphasised that an alliance with Sinn Féin in government was out of the question.

Varadkar has reemphasised his opposition since Election Day. Since the election, Martin has taken a more nuanced position. The Fianna Fáil Director of Elections has made the point that all of those who won a mandate in the General Election have a shared responsibility to help form a government.

That particular formulation of words could cover a multitude of options. It could cover a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael led administration – ending the civil war divide in Irish politics. Most radically it could cover a Fianna Fail/Sinn Féin led coalition.

It could even leave the way open for the formation of a ‘national government’ of all parties, for a fixed term, with an agreed policy programme and with Ministerial positions distributed on some form of D’Hondt system across the political spectrum.

What is clear is that Irish voters in the election of Saturday 8 February showed they wanted ‘change’ – what kind of change, is another matter.

In his poem on the Easter Rising of 1916, which ultimately produced the Irish Republic, William Butler Yeats wrote: “all changed, changed utterly”. The 8 February 2020 election is not to be compared to the events of 1916, but its impacts could produce a very considerable political upheaval.

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