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Irish election result is historic win for left

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

For the first time in the state’s existence, the biggest share of the vote has gone to a proudly anti-imperialist, pro-migrant, anti-racist, pro-LGBT, anti-sexist party: Sinn Féin

by Sebastian Clare

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald pictured among a crowd of protesters holding placards calling for better pay for early years educators
Support for early years education was a key plank of the campaign led by Mary Lou McDonald (pictured centre). Photo: Oisín McCann/Sinn Féin

A seismic shift took place in Irish electoral politics on Saturday. For the entirety of the state’s existence, almost a hundred years, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (and the antecedents of those two parties) have been top dogs when it comes to forming governments. In fact, every single government from the first administration in 1922 to the present day has involved one or other of the pair. This dominance is compounded by the fact that they have their roots not in any ideological difference, but on a split in the original Sinn Féin party as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that brought said administration into existence.

Perhaps somewhat confusingly to the outsider, the beneficiaries of the seismic shift are themselves called Sinn Féin. While they too have links to the party founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905, their real origins lie in resistance to the Unionist Northern Irish government of Stormont in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, this Sinn Féin were the political wing of a moribund and ineffective IRA the Irish Republican Army, although so unable were they to defend Catholic communities in this period that the beleaguered locals began to derisively label them ‘I Ran Away’ but another split, this time in 1970, gave the organisation new lease of life. One side of the split, Official Sinn Féin, were oriented towards Marxism, and would eventually evolve into the Workers’ Party. The other side is what we are concerned with; they took with them what would become known as the Provos (the Provisional IRA). Soon this faction’s militant defence of Northern Ireland’s Catholics, and the introduction of the British Army to the province in response, would kickstart the Troubles; a brutal conflict that would last almost 30 years.

It is important to preface a report on the Republic of Ireland’s General Election results with this background because so much of the narrative relies upon the understanding of this past. The mainstream of Irish politics is so tied up with the two ‘main’ parties, and so hostile to Sinn Féin (SF) as a result of the aforementioned conflict in Northern Ireland, that it would be easy to think that the party was the equivalent to the Alternative für Deutschland or Frances’s Front National. Yet the antipathy has no basis in the ideology of SF; they are proudly anti-imperialist, pro-migrant, anti-racist, pro-LGBT, anti-sexist, pro-choice and egalitarian. To members and supporters of Die Linke who pay attention to goings-on in the European parliament, none of this will be a surprise; SF sit with Die Linke in the GUE/NGL (European United Left Nordic Green Left).

That’s enough prelude, what about the actual results? Well, SF won a plurality of the popular vote, with almost 1 in 4 votes being cast in their favour. The governing Fine Gael (FG) received about 21%, while the nominally-in-opposition Fianna Fáil (FF) claimed 22%. The country’s Proportional Representation Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV) electoral system is always friendly to independent candidates, and these accounted for the 4th largest number of votes. However, although Sinn Féin won a plurality of votes they did not end up with a proportional number of seats; the surge in votes took them by such surprise that they had not run sufficient candidates to take advantage (SF ran in 42 seats, compared to FG’s 82 and FF’s 84). As a result, it was FF who ended up as the largest party in Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament, equivalent to the Bundestag) with 38 seats, as SF trailed by the finest of margins with 37 and FG not far back either with 35. Given that there are 160 seats in the Dáil, with 1 of them allocated to the Speaker, a minimum of 80 are required to form a majority.

After what certainly appeared to be an enthusiastic campaign that energised the youth vote, turnout was ultimately disappointing, at just under 63%. This was the 4th lowest in the history of the state, which came as a surprise. It seems that the traditionally reliable support base for the major parties among the older voting bloc signalled their displeasure by simply staying at home, leaving younger voters with a less jaundiced view of Sinn Féin and no personal memory of their activities during the Troubles to take a decisive role in the outcome. More importantly, this resulted in a strong left vote, itself an extraordinary achievement in a country whose politics are unique in Western Europe in that they do not easily fit into a left-right dichotomy. Furthermore, the splintered far-right parties and individuals who contested the election received a sound kicking further evidence that although a nationalist party became the largest on the island, this is not the nationalism of the continent or England. To buttress this fact, a survey carried out in tandem with the Exit Poll found that when it came to what issues were most important to the electorate, a paltry 1% of voters identified immigration as a factor in casting their vote while only a further 1% said that Brexit had informed their choice. Health and housing were the dominant motivators according to 58% of respondents.

So what now? In the run-up to the election, leaders of both major parties took pains to attack SF as much as possible, trying to outdo eachother in the condemnation stakes. FG’s Leo Varadkar claimed that FF’s Micheál Martin would do a deal with SF leader Mary Lou McDonald in order to become Taoiseach, but Martin repeatedly rejected such statements. Now that the results are known, and the dust is settling, realpolitik might make a mockery of these strenuous denials. Nonetheless, it must be said that the numbers in the Dáil make the formation of any government extremely difficult if not nigh-on impossible. Ideally, Sinn Féin could lead a broad left coalition including the Greens, Labour, Social Democrats, Solidarity-People Before Profit (SPBP) and probably at least 2 other independent TDs (Teachtaí Dála, members of parliament). Sadly, this would still come up significantly short, with about 68 TDs. Even an SF & FF coalition would need another partner, probably the Greens, in order to establish a working majority. The only other alternative is a kind of Irish equivalent to the ‘GroKo’, with implacable old enemies FF & FG joining together, but yet again this arrangement would need extra numbers to reach the threshold.

After the comparatively standard General Election of 2016, it took 9 weeks to form a government; a complicated ‘Confidence & Supply’ arrangement whereby FG and a number of independents established an administration with the opposition party FF propping them up when it came to the Budget and any votes of No Confidence. With the formation of the Dáil leaving so few options, who knows how long it could take this time? It may be necessary for the electorate to exercise their franchise again before the year is out.

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