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Opinion: This Irish election result was not an ideological vote, it was an angry one

The shift to the left, including the swing to Sinn Féin, is more about voters’ anger at Fine Gael, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THE DUST HAS settled on the Irish general election of February 2020. There are 38 seats for Fianna Fáil, 37 seats for Sinn Féin and 35 seats for Fine Gael in the 33rd Dáil.

Earthquake, seismic, and unprecedented are just three of the words that have been associated with it. The bottom line: no one saw how incredibly well Sinn Féin would do across the country.

Attempts to figure out how and why this happened and what it portends are ongoing, as is chatter about what the next government might look like. More on the latter below.

It is instructive to look back. In the months leading up to Leo Varadkar calling a Saturday election, notwithstanding strong macroeconomic indicators, there was an undeniable ire and frustration about. My own conversations with a wide range of individuals revealed discontent, unsurprisingly, on the issues of housing, homelessness and health.

But there was also an overarching sense that they were struggling and deeply concerned about the future. There was a marked disconnect between abstract statistics and lived experiences. Their attitudes toward politicians and the organs of the state were hostile.

This was confirmed almost unanimously by vox pops on RTÉ and Newstalk. And interestingly, those interviewed expressed a thirst for an election – “the sooner, the better” one man exclaimed.

In January, we didn’t know what that sentiment would translate into politically. We do now. Indeed, an exit poll taken over the weekend showed that roughly half of the citizenry had made up their minds on who to vote for before the campaign began. A significant portion of them had probably decided to make Sinn Féin the receptacle of their anger.

No doubt who won

And in an era when voting by party label is in decline – trumped often by geography, personality, efficacious provision of constituent services and advocacy on social issues such as abortion and marriage equality – the extent to which the Sinn Féin brand is the big winner in this election cannot be overstated.

Numerous of the party’s relatively unknown and previously unsuccessful candidates, one of whom went on holiday as her opponents were battling for every last vote, prevailed by typically overwhelming margins.

Huge credit is accordingly due to Mary Lou McDonald for her excellent leadership. She obviously appealed on multiple levels to a broad swathe of men and women. Moreover, Pearse Doherty on finance and, in particular, Eoin Ó Broin on housing formed the nucleus of a team who have each become household names owing to their being capable and articulate media performers.

A genuine shift to the left?

Since the outcome was made known, commentators have posited that this popular endorsement of Sinn Féin, together with the widespread transfer of the party’s first preferences to others on the left, marks an ideological shift in that direction in Irish politics.

There may be some (temporary?) truth to this hypothesis.

Yet the scale of the victory and the growth in support from older people suggest that many were seeking change and to get rid of Fine Gael above all.

Theirs was not an ideological vote; it was an angry one. One manifestation of it was the benefit derived by Verona Murphy from Johnny Mythen’s Sinn Féin transfers in Wexford.

What now for the two ‘old’ parties?

What does all this mean for the self-professed losers, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil?

In post-election TV and radio appearances, Fine Gaelers repeat the tripartite mantra that they lost this election; that they will not go into coalition with Sinn Féin; and that it is up to McDonald to form a government. In short, they seem resolutely determined to sit on the opposition benches.

Additionally, the status of their leader has been delicately questioned. For his own part, Leo Varadkar, who wasn’t re-elected until the fifth count evidently needs to be more visible on the ground in Dublin West. One can’t help but wonder, though, about the future trajectory of his career in politics.

He has mentioned more than once that he does not plan to spend the rest of his professional life in politics. Would presiding over a vastly diminished and inevitably disgruntled parliamentary party energise or deflate him? And the man whose back story made him a global figure would surely have no shortage of lucrative and fulfilling opportunities elsewhere. Speculation in this regard is rampant.

Fianna Fáil, and Micheál Martin, in particular, face a more complicated situation. The unexpected loss of several high-profile TDs left them with fewer seats than anticipated.

By a whisker, they still have the most, but the initial relaxing of pre-existing antagonism toward a coalition with Sinn Féin has dissipated. The two parties would be practically co-equals and would actually require a third-party or independents to form a majority. “Go and sort it, Mary Lou,” has replaced openness.

Indeed, McDonald has said that she could be Taoiseach and is reportedly speaking with the Greens, Social Democrats, Labour, Solidarity/People Before Profit and certain independents about a left-wing coalition government. The snag is that the numbers aren’t there for her.

Some commentators have outlined solutions which are technically possible, on the one hand, and quite convoluted, on the other. These would simultaneously allow the left to coalesce in government and both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to avoid what their memberships deem unpalatable.

One problem here is that there is no guarantee whatsoever that Sinn Féin’s desired allies would assent to what is on offer from Mary Lou. In truth, the Irish left is an amorphous entity. Hardliners are profoundly sceptical of Sinn Féin’s socialist credentials; Greens are dubious of its environmental policies. A further difficulty is that the electorate has emphatically rejected the confidence and supply arrangement. Would they be accepting of another precarious government lacking a clear majority?

Without ruling anything out then, including a second election, but mindful of Mary O’Rourke’s sage advice to all the key players on Sean O’Rourke’s programme on Tuesday – “you live in the situation you find yourself in” – coalition between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, together with the 12 TDs from the Green Party, is my best guess as to what will ultimately come to pass. To be honest, no one knows where this will wind up with any reasonable degree of certainty.

And then there were three

It is also worth considering the longer-term impact of Sinn Féin polling ahead of the two main parties that have long dominated politics in Ireland for the first time.

Is it another blip or can it be confidently said that are there now three large parties? It will be years before we know the answer. But I will venture two closely related thoughts.

First is that their past will be largely irrelevant to Sinn Féin’s fate. Second is that no matter what its composition, what they deliver when in government will determine their ultimate staying power.


Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.


About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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