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Sinn Féin surge and an unwelcome record for the Taoiseach: 13 key points of the election so far

Sinn Féin’s candidate in Clare topping the poll, Stephen Donnelly in danger in Wicklow, and a battle for Mary Lou’s transfers.

Updated Feb 10th 2020, 1:35 AM

WE HAVE A third of the Dáil filled, and the story of the first quarter is: Sinn Féin coming in first or second place in most constituencies – and breaking into ground where they had never been in the running previously.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, meanwhile, have two candidates in a few constituencies fighting for the final seat, in what will make for a fascinating transfer contest.

The national picture shows that Sinn Féin won 24.5% of first preference votes, Fianna Fáil were represented accurately in the exit poll as they are on 22.2%, and Fine Gael are on 20.9%. 

Here’s a quick sweep of the battles and successes coming out of count day.

1. A new party in government?

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks, the story of the election has been the rise in the popularity of Sinn Féin. That’s something which tallies have shown has borne out today.

The party became the first in the country to have a TD elected, with Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire topping the poll in Cork South Central – pipping Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin to the post in a hotly contested constituency.

The party, which only stood 42 candidates, will top polls in many other constituencies after taking the highest number of first preference votes.

general-election-ireland-2020 Sinn Fein's Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire celebrates his election this afternoon Source: Yui Mok/PA Images

That’s led to inevitable chatter about whether the party will be invited to form the next government after all, despite their relatively low number of candidates and a refusal by Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin to entertain such an idea before the election.

Martin has already appeared to be rowing back on that promise, telling RTÉ that he has “heard the people speak” and that “there has to be compatibility” when asked about the possibility of joining forces with his party’s bête noire.

However, Mary Lou McDonald has said that Ireland needs a new government that doesn’t involve either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.

The feeling appears to be mutual, as far as Fine Gael are concerned.

Varadkar said Fine Gael will not change its mind about forming a coalition with Sinn Féin, regardless of the outcome of the election.

The Taoiseach said he had made his party’s position about a coalition with Sinn Féin “very clear” during the campaign and that Fine Gael had won votes on that basis.

“My position hasn’t changed,” he added.

2. Sinn Féin break into Tipp and Wexford

Although Michael Lowry has topped the poll in Tipperary (some things never change), Sinn Féin has a candidate that is likely to get a seat – despite not having a candidate in the running in nearly 100 years.

The Sinn Féin candidate Martin Browne, lost his seat as a councillor in the local elections last year, but is now polling at 12%, and is likely to come in second place (at count four, he’s on 10,834 votes). Mattie McGrath (Independent) is on 11% (on count four he had 10,152), Jackie Cahill (FF) is on 9%, as is Alan Kelly of Labour.

It’s a similar story in Wexford, with Johnny Mythen from Enniscorthy. Mythen, a former ESB worker, lost his council seat in the local election – and has won a quota and a half worth of votes.

His over 18,000 first preference votes compare to just 818 he got in the local elections when he lost his seat. That general election result is equal to double the number of first-pref votes Labour leader Brendan Howlin got (9,223).

3. Donnelly and the Soc Dems

The last time Stephen Donnelly ran in a general election, it was under the Social Democrats banner, with him as one of three co-leaders. He topped the poll with 20% of first preference votes, and was elected on the first count.

After leaving the party, he was an independent for five months before joining Fianna Fáil.

Now as a Fianna Fáil TD and its spokesperson on health, he’s on 7% after the first count, winning 5,117 first preference votes, a fraction of the 14,348 he won in 2016. The Soc Dems candidate Jennifer Whitmore is on 10%, with 6,691 votes.

After count two, Whitmore had risen to 7,951 while Donnelly was on 5,630.

Ahead in this constituency is John Brady with 24.4% of the vote, and Simon Harris on 12.2% of the vote. Stephen Matthews of the Green Party is on 7.7%.

After count two, Harris was on 8,885 and Matthews was on 6,064.

This count has been suspended for the night.

4. Dublin Central – oh what a fight

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald unsurprisingly topped the poll in Dublin Central, taking the first of four seats in the constituency with 11,223 votes.

However, a fairly big battle is underway for the remaining three seats, with a quota of 6,288 required.

Outgoing finance minister Paschal Donohoe was on 4,181 votes after the first count, followed closely by the Greens’ Neasa Hourigan on 3,851 and Fianna Fáil’s Mary Fitzpatrick in fourth on 3,228.

After the fourth count, Hourigan had 4,312; Donohue is on 4,292; Gannon is at 3,696; Fitzpatrick is on 3,535 and Burke is at 3,441. Fine Gael candidate Deirdre Duffy’s votes will continue to be distributed.

But Donohoe and Fitzpatrick could both feel the heat after McDonald’s surplus of nearly 5,000 votes is transferred.

They could go to the Social Democrats’ Gary Gannon, who is trailing closely in fifth on 2,912, but all eyes will be on independent candidate Christy Burke, who is seeking to be elected to the Dáil at the tenth time of asking.

He was on just 1,509 votes after the first count, but earlier tallies suggested the former Dublin Lord Mayor has taken around half of McDonald’s second preferences. Watch this space.

This count has been suspended for the night.

5. The Healy-Raes on opinion polls

Michael Healy-Rae, the Kerry independent will return to the Dáil after topping the poll again, winning 16,818 first preference votes. His brother Danny will also be elected, after getting close to 11% of first preference votes (8,663).

This proves a TG4 Ipsos MRBI poll completely wrong, which had Danny Healy Rae on 4%. While speaking to RTÉ Radio, Michael said of that:

I congratulate them on their consistency in being incorrect… They were wrong in 2016 and today, they were incorrect again. If people were doing polls like this, it would be better if they were correct.

Michael H-R was also absolutely scathing in his analysis of Fine Gael’s performance during the last government: “Some of the decisions they made were wrong, they were stupid and we said that they didn’t make any sense at the time.”

A stalwart Kerry politician Martin Ferris is resigning from politics, passing the republican torch to Pa Daly. Ahead of the opinion polls, Daly wasn’t expected to retain the seat, but tallies have confirmed that he’ll retain the seat (he won 15,733 on the first count).

Fine Gael looks set to take the fourth seat (10,296 votes), while the final seat will likely go to Norma Foley (on 6,856). The quota is 12,945.

This count has been suspended for the night.

6. Leo Varadkar: the first Taoiseach to come second

One of Sinn Féin’s biggest coups has come in Leo Varadkar’s own constituency Dublin West, where Paul Donnelly was elected at the first count.

To get a grip on how significant that result is: no outgoing Taoiseach has ever failed to top the poll in their home constituency the next time out. Added to that, the last time a Taoiseach failed to get his running mate elected was in 1989. 

Donnelly took a staggering 12,456 votes in first, with the Taoiseach well behind him on 8,478. 

Fianna Fáil’s Jack Chambers took the third place, and the the Greens’ Roderic O’Gorman took the fourth and final seat, meaning Ruth Coppinger and former tánaiste Joan Burton are losing their Dáil seats.

7. Clare and the RIC controversy

This is one of the big stories of this election, and a great example of the extent of that Sinn Féin surge.

Timmy Dooley of Fianna Fáil was the poll topper in the last election, winning over 10,000 votes and 17.92% share of the vote. In this election he’s a running mate in the form of Clare mayor Cathal Crowe – who first raised concerns with a State commemoration for the RIC, which quickly became a national issue.

Not only is Cathal Crowe to be elected, but he’s going to surpass Timmy Dooley. And not only that, but a Sinn Féin candidate who wasn’t mentioned as being in the running in Clare, even after the favourable results for Sinn Féin in the opinion polls, is going to come first overall.

Violet-Anne Wynne has topped the poll on the first count, winning 8,692 votes.

After the fifth count, Wynne was on 9,599; Crowe was on 8,541; and Dooley on 7,826. The quota is 11,900.

8. Willie O’Dea knocked off his throne

In Limerick City, Willie O’Dea is famed for hoovering up votes and topping the poll. In 2002 he won 26% of the vote, in 2007 he won 38%, and in 2016 he won 27%.

Despite that track record, and an impressively efficient canvassing approach, he won’t top the poll this time – with that honour going to Sinn Féin’s Maurice Quinlivan, their spokesperson on workers’ rights. He won 2,456 votes in 2014, and 5,894 votes in 2016.

In Limerick County, Fianna Fáil’s Niall Collins and Patrick O’Donovan have been re elected, as expected – and independent Richard O’Donoghue and Seighin O’Ceallaigh are left fighting for the final seat, after FG’s Tom Neville was eliminated.

9. Where Sinn Féin lost out

In the local elections, Sinn Féin won 9% of the overall vote – losing a significant chunk of their candidates across the country. It was on this basis that they withdrew second candidates on the ballot paper at the last minute before the general election.

Although this is understandable, there are certain constituencies where they could have ran an extra candidate and didn’t – and that has cost them extra seats.

In Mary Lou’s constituency of Dublin Central, she gathered 75% of first preference votes. The Sinn Féin leader has enjoyed the highest satisfaction ratings of all the leaders, so there was a good basis for running a second SF candidate. 

Over in Waterford, David Cullinane won 20,000 votes – double the quota. As a high-profile TD and its spokesperson on climate action, Cullinane could have brought home a running mate in the four-seater constituency, particularly after John Halligan’s retirement.

In Dublin North-West, Dessie Ellis got 14,375 first preference votes – in a three-seater constituency that has a quota of 8,097. Another missed opportunity.

10. Cabinet woes

Meanwhile, there are shaping up to be some high-profile losses across the country, including several outgoing ministers and junior ministers.

Former Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross has been eliminated in Dublin Rathdown, after he had little hope of getting elected in the three-seater constituency.

Earlier he conceded after acknowledging that he was probably going to be beaten.

“Now the electorate have said ‘we want someone else, we want something different’,” he told Newstalk.

Elsewhere in the capital, outgoing Minister for Children Katherine Zappone also looks at risk in Dublin South-West. We’re still awaiting a first count in one of the country’s most competitive constituencies, but the independent TD tallied at around 5% earlier.

In Meath East, Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty has lost her seat, while Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee has held hers. It was always going to be tight between the two Fine Gael candidates, but from the first count when McEntee had gathered a significant lead, she was in trouble. 

In Dun Laoghaire, Fine Gael Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor has lost her seat to her running mate that replaced Maria Bailey – Jennifer Carroll MacNeill.

Forestry minister (yes, it’s a thing) Andrew Doyle will be feeling a little nervous in Wicklow: after the second count he’s gathered just 5,044 votes putting him in fifth place in the five-seater. That has him behind outgoing health minister Simon Harris but ahead of party colleague Billy Timmins and Fianna Fáil’s Pat Casey.

And tallies also have outgoing Chief Whip Sean Kyne on sixth in the five-seater Galway West.

He’s behind Fianna Fáil’s Eamon Ó Cuív, Sinn Féin’s Mairéad Farrell, Independents Noel Grealish and Catherine Connolly, and party colleague Hildegarde Naughton.

11. Anti-immigrant candidates

Early signs also show that many of those who campaigned for anti-immigrant parties or on anti-immigrant platforms have performed poorly across the country, with many of them eliminated at the first count.

In Dublin Fingal, Gemma O’Doherty is currently sitting 11th in the five-seater constituency on 1,252, while her party colleague John Waters was eliminated at the first count in Dun Laoghaire with just 925 votes.

Hurl-wielding Irexit Freedom Party candidate Ben Gilroy isn’t faring any better in Dublin Bay North. First tallies show he’s on just 746 votes in the hotly contested five-seat constituency.

However, things are a bit better for independent candidates Noel Grealish and Verona Murphy – both of whom made controversial comments about asylum seekers and migrants last year.

Grealish has polled 8,159 votes in Galway West, and looks likely to be elected second (after the Sinn Féin candidate, of course) in the five-seater constituency.

Murphy, meanwhile, is in fourth place after the seventh count in the five-seater Wexford constituency. The former Fine Gael by-election candidate – now running as an independent – is on just short of 6,500 votes after the second count.

12. Women and the election

On the surface, it seems like women in this election did quite well: one political commentator has suggested that the most women have topped polls across the country than in any other election. 

But the proportion of female TDs may decrease overall: Fianna Fáil had six female TDs in the last Dáil, and it’s looking like they could be on track to shrink that number to five (if they don’t make any gains with female candidates).

Fine Gael have already lost some high-profile female ministers in Regina Doherty and Mary Mitchell-O’Connor. Solidarity-People Before Profit’s candidate Ruth Coppinger has lost her seat in Dublin West.

13. Turnout

Despite what early indications suggested, turnout is not higher in this Saturday election than on average – in fact, it’s the fourth lowest turnout ever.

The final turnout figure is 62.9%, down by 2.2 percentage points on the 65.1% in 2016.

The only general elections with lower turnouts in the history of the State were 2002 (62.6%), 1922 (62.5%) and 1923 (61.3%).

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About the author:

Gráinne Ní Aodha and Stephen McDermott

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