By Brigit Laffan (European University Institute)

The Irish General Election 2020 was not an earthquake election but represents a major shift in Irish party politics. Fianna Fáil (FF) for long the dominant party in Irish politics lost its cartel status in 2011 following the financial crash and the arrival of the Troika.

The outcome of the 2020 election suggests that it is highly unlikely to regain that status in future. The electoral success of Sinn Féin (SF), which took 24.5% of the popular vote, represents a potential realignment of Irish politics. It outperformed FF with 22.2 % and Fine Gael (FG) with 20.9 % of the popular vote.

The two large parties that have controlled Irish politics since the foundation of the state have to adjust to the arrival of a third political force. While the success of Sinn Féin is historical, it is worth remembering that the history of the state since its foundation, is a history of gradually incorporating political forces that opposed the state into democratic politics.

Taking the gun out of Irish politics has been a long and arduous process but this is a giant step. The 2020 election resonates with the 1932 election that brought FF into power. This is a mark of the resilience of the Irish state and the health of Irish democracy.

Since Autumn 2016, Brexit has dominated the Irish public agenda because of the consensus of the UK exit for Northern Ireland and the border on the island of Ireland. The Irish Government was very effective in ensuring that Irish concerns morphed into an EU27 issue and that Ireland’s partners supported Ireland to the end of the negotiations.

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney and Minister for European Affairs, Helen McAtee did an outstanding job for Ireland in these negotiations. However, the election was not about Brexit and there was no electoral reward for the handling of this difficult challenge. Rather the election was dominated by domestic quality of life issues.

The exit poll found that the two most important issues for voters were health (32%) and housing (26%). All other issues, including Brexit (1 %), were in single digits. For the first time in over ten years, Irish voters were not concerned about jobs and the economy.

Another noteworthy feature of the outcome was the failure of the radical right parties or independents to achieve electoral traction notwithstanding high levels of immigration. Ireland is bucking wider European electoral trends; the election was fought on left-right issues and identity politics were not to the fore. This is the best performance by the left in Ireland since the foundation of the state.

The Irish electorate now want the deficits in the social state and infrastructure to be remedied. These are legacy issues from the crisis but also reflect a high growth economy and aging population. The next Government will have to make progress on these two issues, or it will face the wrath of the electorate.

Government formation will be challenging because all the main parties have difficult choices to make. SF have said that they would prefer a left led coalition excluding the two traditional parties.

The potential seat numbers suggest that this would be difficult to assemble and unlikely to be stable. This leaves three alternative coalitions, FF and FG or SF with either of these parties. For a secure majority, the Green party may also join the coalition. Given the clear demand for change in the electorate, a coalition involving FF and SF with the Greens to dilute the intensity of the relationship appears to me to be the most likely.

Fianna Fáil leader, Micheal Martin, will struggle on moral grounds to agree a coalition with SF but if he wants to be Taoiseach, this is his last opportunity. The FF grassroots would I think be more accepting of a coalition with SF rather than FG and this election was about change. This may be difficult to understand but is deeply ingrained in the habits of mind and party competition.

The final seat tally is not yet available but will end with FF ahead in seat numbers because SF did not field enough candidates given their vote share.

This means that SF will drive a very hard bargain, and would I think look for a rotating Taoiseach whereby Mary Lou McDonald, SF leader, would become Taoiseach mid-way through the political cycle. SF are likely to want the social ministries and unlikely to be offered the sensitive portfolios of Justice and Defence.

For both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin the stakes would be very high. FF can never be more republican than SF and would fear a reverse takeover. SF would have to deliver on key parts of their manifesto within the fiscal limits that exist. They will be punished if they do not deliver on the social agenda but will also if the Irish economy experiences an economic shock and they have been fiscally imprudent.

Sinn Féin in Government will also alter the dynamics of relations between both sides of the island. I expect the national conversation on the future of the island post-Brexit to intensify and be structured in a commission and forum of some kind.

As Ireland approaches the centenary of the Irish state founded in 1922, it would be an extraordinary paradox if its Government consisted of two parties that opposed that state at its inception. This would represent a successful state building and democratic project.

Note: This post was first published atéin-arrives-third-force-irish-politics
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