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The 2020 Election Ireland

Sinn Fein 24.5%; Fianna Fail 22.2%; Fine Gael 20.9%
Sinn Fein 37; Fianna Fail 38; Fine Gael 35; Greens 12.

The Headlines say it all. A storm blew through the Irish political scene on February just asAtlantic storm Ciara was battering Ireland. In the General Election Sinn Fein polled more votes (535,595) than any other Irish political party. The final seat tally late Monday shows them one seat only behind Fianna Fail. This as a result of the vagaries of Ireland’s PR system, plus the tactical decision of Sinn Fein to run only one candidate in most constituencies.All but five of their forty two candidates were elected, with a number of them racking up surpluses large enough to have delivered a second seat, surpluses that in some instances helped elect left wing candidates, giving the next Dail a distinctive left-of-centre hue, with for the first time the combined seats and votes for the traditional big two centre parties falling below 50%.

The country, the politicians and the pundits are drawing breath and wondering what happens next. Some excited commentators are describing the results as seismic and as heralding the definitive end of the old two-party system based on civil war politics which has dominated Irish politics since the early days of the state.Maybe.That system’s decline, which had been gradual, was given impetus by the 2008 Crash and has now been given a hefty shove. The People have spoken, hardly definitively, with no party garnering even a quarter of the popular vote, but with a certain emphasis - change. The policies and politics of austerity, the steady-as-she-goes cautious approach, the handwringing official tolerance of the intolerable in terms of Housing, Homelessness and the creaking Health System have taken a battering. The task now is for the elected politicians to cobble together a government and an action programme for that government; not easy tasks.

Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar (center)
In the end the opinion polls got it close to right. Sinn Fein actually managed to better its high standing – just - while the dismal showings for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were replicated in the one poll that mattered – the actual vote on Election Day. This less than nine months after Sinn Fein had been routed in Ireland’s local elections, losing half its seats and seeing its vote share drop by a third to less than 10% and being badly mauled simultaneously in the European Parliamentary Elections. On 8 February several candidates who had polled a few hundred votes last May stormed home as poll toppers. Sinn Fein as a whole saw its share of the vote increase by 10.7%, while Fine Gael saw it’s vote drop by 4.7% and Fianna Fail by 2.1%.

It’s clear that something dramatic happened to boost Sinn Fein. Its election manifesto was ambitious and populist, advocating inter alia cuts in personal and property taxes, a massive housebuilding programme and increased taxes on companies and the better off in a programme which was way above the potential available spending envelope adhered to by its rivals. This, combined with the fact that it was untainted by any of the blame for the 2008 Crash and the subsequent years of austerity presided over by Fine Gael (and Labour for five years) and shored up by Fianna Fail in the Confidence and Supply arrangement, was sufficient to convince enoughvoters to cause the swing. Promises from the other parties of jam tomorrow, amid cautionary tones about Brexit and economic uncertainty, signally failed to excite the electorate which saw only the worsening housing crisis, with a young generation unable to aspire to own their own property, the homeless sleeping in the streets of the major cities and towns and the scandalous condition of the Irish health service.
Sinn Fein promised change and it worked.It ran a superb campaign focussed on leader Mary Lou McDonald, who at fifty is short –odds to become Ireland’s first female Taoiseach. It survived a potential hiccup in the campaign’s final days over reminders of its chequered past and links with the IRA, but here too an interesting development to note. The Good Friday Agreement was over twenty years ago and a whole generation has grown up with no memory of the violent decades that preceded it. For this generation there were the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, then the Crash, followed by the decade of austerity, with clear political scapegoats in the form of the main political parties, who now appear to threaten a future with little improvement and apparent inability to tackle the serious problemsthe country faces. Is this generation going to ponder overmuch on Sinn Fein’s past, or indeed examine the small print in their election manifesto?

A word of caution lest Mary Lou’s success be regarded as akin to the Second Coming. . There have been somewhat similar surges before in support for one or other political party. And the pendulum has always swung back – with a vengeance. Fianna Fail bought the election in 1977 with a blatant populist programme, which, after implementation, undermined the country’s finances for decades; this to counter an austerity government as the country adjusted to EC membership. Fianna Fail gained 19 seats and actually won 50.6% of the vote; it subsequently never achieved an overall majority. In 1992, Labour saw its vote increase by 9.8% and gain 18 seats after a particularly injudicious performance by the Fianna Fail Taoiseach. Five years later, having abandoned Fianna Fail and installed a Fine Gael Taoiseach, Labour saw its vote decline by 8.9% and lose almost all those seats gained. In 2011, as Fianna Fail saw its vote drop by 24% and lose 51 seats, dropping to 20, Fine Gael saw its vote increase by 8.8% and gain25 seats, while Labour achieved an increase of 9.3% and an extra 17 seats. Five years later those chickens came home to roost; in 2016 Fine Gael lost 16 seats and saw its vote drop by 10.6%, while for Labour the election was a catastrophe. Labour dropped from 19.4% to 6.6% of the vote and lost 26 of its 33 seats.

The message should be clear. The Irish electorate does not respond well to promises made and not delivered. Sinn Fein now has its chance; but it had better perform.But first a government has got to be formed and a programme agreed.No party can do it alone. The magic number is 80. Short of an unlikely left leaning coalition involving Sinn Fen (37), the Greens (12), Labour (6), the Social Democrats (6), SPBP(5) and 15 of the 21 Independents, the only other choices for government involve some coalition between Sinn Fein and either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael plus a minor party (the Greens?) or some form of Grand Coalition between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, thus excluding Sinn Fein. There are other permutations involving a minority government shored up by some form of Confidence and Supply arrangement.

In 2016 it took 63 days of negotiations for a new government to emerge. Given some of the public utterances to date, it could be much the same this time. “Hard pounding Gentlemen.”

Sean Farrell is a former Irish Consul General who served all over the world, and is now retired in Ireland.

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February 2020

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