Some thoughts on the Irish General Election

(Photo: Euronews)
Counting hasn't finished yet in the Irish general election, but already a picture is beginning to emerge. With 85% of seats declared, the position of the various parties is as follows: Sinn Fein 37 seats, Fine Gael 31, Fianna Fail 29, Greens 10, Solidarity-PBP 5, Labour 4, Social Democrats 4.

It's been an astonishing election result and one whose ramifications and permutations will be discussed at length in the coming weeks and months. It would be impossible to reflect on the way forward until the dust settles, but what we know so far gives us a bit to think about.

The first thing to say is that Sinn Fein’s surge surprised everyone – including themselves. They could even have done better (potentially around 10 more seats) had they fielded sufficient candidates). SF’s success really has come out of the blue. There was nothing in its recent performances to indicate this kind of result was imminent. The fielding of only 42 candidates reflects this: they anticipated a difficult election, rather than one in which virtually every candidate would be returned to the Dail.

As times change so too do voters’ perceptions of political parties. Whatever Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin think of Sinn Fein (SF), it’s quite clear a large section of the electorate are willing to accept that SF has moved on from its historic connections to the IRA and armed struggle. Mary Lou McDonald is not Gerry Adams; SF has successfully recreated itself as the mainstream party of the left. Whether or not we're comfortable with that reality hardly matters.

Brexit hardly featured in voters’ thinking. It’s clear Irish people see it as a British problem, as well they might. Voters were instead largely interested in issues of social justice, housing and healthcare. 

This was an election in which the youth vote made a huge difference. SF topped the poll among voters of all ages other than the over 65s, but they performed exceptionally well among voters aged 18-34. Younger voters seemed either to be more willing to forgive the past, or are less troubled by it.

SF was not the only party to be forgiven by the electorate. The Green Party, wiped out in 2011 as punishment for its role as junior partner in an unpopular coalition, made something of a comeback with 10 TDs returned so far.

It’s difficult to say whether voters rejected the policy platforms of Fianna Fail (FF) and Fine Gael (FG) or whether it’s more a question of fatigue with the established two-party duopoly. What is certain is that both FF and FG were widely seen to represent the politics of the past and, indeed, much that is perceived as “stale” within Irish politics. It’s also the case that many voters saw little difference between FF and FG.

The Labour Party is now in terminal decline and it is difficult to see how that can be arrested. Brendan Howlin‘s party have so far secured four seats – given they were the second largest party after the 2011 election, it’s not difficult to conclude that its established position as the dominant party of the left has been eclipsed by Sinn Fein’s carefully crafted strategy in recent years. Howlin’s stated willingness to return to government cannot mask the inescapable reality that the voters Labour could once rely on have switched their allegiance to SF. 

The Social Democrats have done moderately well, doubling their representation in the Dail. At the time of writing they have the same number of TDs elected as Labour.

I don’t believe that 24.5% of first preference votes confirms a mandate for a party that didn’t field enough candidates to take advantage of the result, but similarly it is clear that the electorate has voted against the status quo. No party is ascendant.

Similarly, I don't necessarily concur with SF leader Mary Lou McDonald when she asserts that "Irish unification is now live [and] happening" - it will take more than polling a quarter of the first preference vote to confirm that. However, her party's electoral success has certainly put the issue of "constitutional transition" back into the political conversation and this is something that cannot be ignored.

There was an inevitability to the fact that sections of the media are already spinning rather dubious narratives. Some focus on "Sinn Fein's historic election win" (securing a marginally higher percentage of the popular vote does not an election win - ask Hillary Clinton) while others have centred their interest on the issue of Brexit - with one going so far as to blame "English nationalism" for "the rise of Irish nationalism". The fact that the Irish election was about Ireland, Irish political dynamics and Irish issues - many of them localised - seems lost on those who struggle to accept that not everything is about England. Even John Simpson, world affairs editor of BBC news, bemoaned that Ireland, "so stable for decades, has succumbed to populism now", clearly forgetting Charles Haughey. 

This election – surely the most interesting Irish election in living memory – has thrown up more questions that it has provided answers. Will a coalition government be forged? If so, what kind of coalition and can it command a majority? Will the Greens agree to be part of it, or will they wish to avoid any repeat of the associations with the 2007-11 coalition? How long will any negotiations take, and how fraught will they be? Is there a viable alternative to the FF-FG duopoly that has been so clearly rejected? Could it be that this least decisive of elections actually reinforces the familiar two-party grasp on power with an FF-FG coalition minority government?

Who will be the text taoiseach? And at what price? At the moment I cannot answer those questions, and I doubt many others can either.