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If the exit polls are borne out, government formation talks are going to be a bit of nightmare

So… Now what?

‘EARTHQUAKE’, ‘YOUTHQUAKE’ … political commentators went to some lengths to try and sum up just how dramatic last night’s exit poll findings were. 

It became clear throughout the campaign that a surge in Sinn Féin support meant the party was expected to do well. Similarly, Fine Gael’s hopes of victory ebbed in recent weeks after a series of poor showings in the opinion polls.

Fianna Fáil looked set to benefit most from FG’s misfortune, and it looked likely Micheál Martin would be firmly in the driving seat come government formation time. 

While FF will still likely emerge on top in terms of seat count when the dust settles, the exit poll results are still hugely notable and mean forming a government will be even trickier than we’d assumed in the latter days of the campaign. 

As a reminder, all three largest parties ended up within 0.2% of each other in terms of first preferences, according to the survey of more than 5,000 people carried out at polling stations by Ipsos MRBI for RTÉ, The Irish Times, TG4 and UCD. 

The breakdown was: 

  • Fine Gael: 22.4% 
  • Sinn Féin: 22.3% 
  • Fianna Fáil: 22.2% 

There was a margin of error of plus or minus 1.3% – meaning the three parties could have support as low as 20% or as high as 23%. 

There was a particular surge towards SF among younger voters: Mary Lou McDonald’s party secured 31.8% among 18- to 24-year-olds. 

So what does it all mean for government formation talks?

Short answer: It means they’re going to be difficult. 

Slightly longer answer: It means they’re going to be very difficult indeed and we could end up having another election. 

Tune into TV or radio reports later this morning, and you’ll likely hear more than a few mentions of the phrase ‘Spring tide’ (that’s partly due to the storm warning, but that’s a different story). 

Back in 1992, under Dick Spring, Labour secured 33 seats in the general election – but the party could have had a much better result if it had run more candidates. 

Sinn Féin will likely have a similar problem today (four weeks ago, mind, they’d probably have bitten your arm off if you told them this would be their worst problem come count day).

The party ran 42 candidates – and could have secured two seats in constituencies where they only have one person running. 

That said, as first preferences are only at a little over 20%, they won’t necessarily have two candidates elected in every constituency where they have two people on the ballot. And in some areas where their support base is lower (Dublin Rathdown, for instance) the single candidate won’t get in either. 

In fact, Sinn Féin only ran two candidates in Dublin Mid-West, Louth, Donegal and Cavan Monaghan – so the party could end up with a seat haul in the low thirties.

Level-pegging Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will likely do far better as they have more candidates – but, in terms of final seat numbers, we’ll have to wait to see how things work out on transfers. 

Left-wing parties like Solidarity-People Before Profit will benefit from Sinn Féin transfers. 

And considering the last week of the campaign saw daily warnings issued from FF and FG about the dangers of letting Sinn Féin into government, the two old Civil War parties could transfer well to each other. 

The options, for parties hoping to put together something resembling a stable government? 

If Fianna Fáil, as expected, emerge with most seats, they could look at forming an administration with the support of the Greens (who also look set to gain today), or with the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats and others. 

If the exit polls are borne out, they’ll then need the support of Fine Gael in a reverse confidence-and-supply arrangement for that option to work.

That’s something Leo Varadkar had said he was open to as a last resort during the election campaign – but if his party performs poorly, not everyone on the Fine Gael benches will necessarily be jumping up and down at the prospect.

The other options? Either FF or FG will have to row back on their ‘no, never’ positions on forming a government that involves Sinn Féin. 

If none of the above options work out, we’ll be heading for a repeat of 1982, when there were two general elections in the same calendar year (as David McCullough noted on RTÉ’s exit poll coverage last night, candidates might want to get out this morning to rescue their election posters that aren’t yet blown away and stick a “coat of varnish” on them). 

Even if we are heading into a new confidence-and-supply arrangement, don’t expect the process to be resolved swiftly. 

Back in 2016, the election took place at the end of February. It was the end of April before the shape of a Fine Gael-led government, supported by Fianna Fáil, emerged. 

In the intervening months a caretaker cabinet remained in place: Enda Kenny stayed in the job, met Barack Obama as a caretaker taoiseach in St Patrick’s week and went on to lead ceremonies at the Easter Rising centenary commemorations in late April. 

Second election or otherwise, whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, at the very least it’s looking likely that Leo Varadkar will be sitting down for a chat with Donald Trump (and possibly another breakfast with Mike Pence) next month. 

About the author:

Daragh Brophy

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