A story of success and stalemate


Stephen Colbert

SINN Féin are the story of this election, but we have been here before. In the 1992 General Election in Ireland, Labour also ‘won’ the election by doubling its seats to 33. Known as the ‘Spring Tide’ had Labour had run more candidates it would have won more seats because of the massive surpluses of its successful TDs. Sound familiar? In the General Election of 2020, we find history repeating itself. Fianna Fáil won 38 seats, Sinn Féin won 37 and Fine Gael won 35. Sinn Féin won the popular vote, but like Labour in 1992 were unable to convert this into seats.

The Sinn Féin surge has sent the Irish political establishment reeling as commentators try to understand how it happened and the political elite try to come to terms with it. The current version of Sinn Féin was only founded in 1971, yet it has won more votes than the parties of the state’s founding fathers, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Fianna Fáil won one more seat, but Sinn Féin beat the main governing party Fine Gael into third place. Throughout the country, new TDs have been elected with enormous majorities that would have been unthinkable when the election was called.

If Sinn Féin manages to form the next government, judging by the public mood it must be a ‘change government.’ Gerry Adams has stated that Sinn Féin must prepare to boldly govern for change. It will suffer badly if it fails to keep its promises. Despite public pressure there is no reason for Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael to assist Sinn Féin’s rise to power. They too have a mandate. Combined their mandate is greater than that of Sinn Féin’s.

After two very poor elections—the EU election and local elections—Sinn Féin realised it needed to review its electoral strategy. It relegated the national question because it realised people in the South don’t really care about the border. Once they focussed on the issues that mattered they captured the mood for change and successfully capitalised on it.

All change
The election was about the housing crisis and the poor state of Ireland’s health service. Fine Gael’s early focus was on Brexit, but this was never a Brexit election. They lost the momentum and only began to catch up in the final week of the campaign. Specifically, when they began to remind voters of Sinn Féin’s murky past. But Sinn Féin polled well among young voters who didn’t care about links to the IRA’s campaign. A generation has grown up during the Peace Process and have become removed from the atrocities of the conflict.

It was a social issues election—quality of life issues. Couples are living with parents because rents are too high in the main cities and urban areas. In turn this lessens their ability to buy their own homes. When they eventually manage to get mortgages, both will have to work long hours to make repayments and to pay childcare costs which are amongst the highest in Europe. Ireland is a rich country, but the people are just making ends meet. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were on the receiving end of this frustration.

Traditional foes Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have taken a battering. They need time to reflect, regroup and figure out what to do next. The votes of both are down approximately 50 per cent since the 2011 crash. Their erstwhile partners Labour— the party of James Connolly and Jim Larkin and the oldest party in Ireland is on life support. Its leader Brendan Howlin was the first casualty as he announced his intention to resign.

Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin’s feminist leader wasted no time reaching out to smaller parties and independents with a view to forming a Sinn Féin-led left-wing government. Numerically this is fanciful, but it will give some leverage in future negotiations with their obvious bedfellows Fianna Fáil. Playing the long game, Sinn Féin can call upon some skilful, experienced and battle-hardened negotiators.

McDonald has options, but some are problematic. The greater the number of coalition partners the greater the friction. Labour has ruled itself out as they feel it is too early for Sinn Féin to govern. Of the centre-left this leaves the Social Democrats who are likely to support Sinn Féin. Solidarity/People Before Profit are eager to become part of a left government. The key membership of this alliance is from the Socialist Workers Party who have always supported Republicans’ right to militarily resist what they call British Imperialism in Ireland. However, there are already signs of fracture within the alliance with Dublin South West TD Paul Murphy setting up a new organisation within the framework called RISE.

It is the Greens who would be significant in any such coalition and it is not clear that a coalition with Sinn Féin (above) will work. Both parties are miles apart on the issue of climate action.

A risky coalition?
Sinn Féin seem to have exhausted negotiations with the left parties though and therefore made overtures to Fianna Fáil about forming a government. Fine Gael ruled themselves out of coalescing with Sinn Féin early on and appear content to head to the opposition benches. Strategically a wise move as a coalition of FF/SF would face challenges almost immediately. Some easy points can be scored by Fine Gael, who will be better prepared when that government falls, probably sooner rather than later.

If Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin reach an agreement then it could come at an enormous cost for its leader Micheal Martin. If he is not to be the only leader of Fianna Fáil not to become Taoiseach, he would have to give Sinn Féin some premium cabinet posts. Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs would be on the table, but what about Finance? This is where real power lies. Sinn Féin would need control of Finance if it is to sanction its €22 billion expenditure commitments. Therein lies a huge problem for Fianna Fáil. Dumped out of office in 2011 because of the recession they have—under the reasonable stewardship of Martin—returned to a position of a trusted and potential party of government. Much of the mud slung at Fianna Fáil was that they are a boom and bust party. This image has been difficult to shake off. Sanctioning Sinn Féin’s unsustainable spending could backfire if the country was to go bust again. They have a lot to lose.

Irish unity would also be back on the agenda. The reality is that a border poll is unlikely to result in a united Ireland, but this could be kicked down the road into a constitutional committee or a citizens’ assembly. A similar fate would await Sinn Féin’s desire to see an end to its nemesis, the Special Criminal Court. McDonald struggled to answer questions about this during TV debates which appeared to galvanise older voters into voting against Sinn Féin.

Fine Gael failures
Fine Gael paid for their own competence. When they took over from the disastrous Fianna Fáil-led government they had one focus which was to repair the bankrupt economy. As they have achieved this they expected the electorate would have rewarded them with another term.

The people were unforgiving. The failure to tackle health, housing and homelessness meant that the government was easily portrayed as an uncaring liberal elite out of touch with the people. Indeed, three key members of the outgoing government: Leo Varadkar, Simon Harris and Conor Murphy are all liberally educated, middle class urbanites.

What happens now?
Looking at the Sinn Féin surge in a broader, international context we can see some similarities with the grievances that elected Donald Trump and brought us Brexit. Many who lived in depopulating towns and regions voted for populist candidates and campaigns. There is evidence of this happening too in Ireland where Sinn Féin picked up ‘new’ votes in towns and villages that were losing its young to urban areas. This feeling of being left behind creates a level of insecurity and anger and this is being articulated in the vote for populist candidates. Such areas like Clare and Kildare South who radically shifted to Sinn Féin.

So if Sinn Féin has won but no one wants to coalesce with them, what happens? The logical outcome is another election. Who will blink first? Someone will have to commit heresy to their public commitments and coalesce with Sinn Féin. Another way around this conundrum would be for Micheal Martin to resign and for a more ‘amenable’ leader to take over.

If Sinn Féin do make it into government they need to find a way to make today’s economy work for all of society. And they need to do so quickly. Brexit will necessitate cautious public spending which is likely to impact on Sinn Féin’s ambitious spending plans. You can only wrap yourself in the green flag for so long and as John Hume once said: “You can’t eat a flag.”

Stephen Colbert is a communications lecturer at New College in Lanarkshire, a runner, musician, political animal and father of one