How Ireland Voted 2020: putting the poll under the microscope

A FF-FG-Green coalition symbolised end of an era but does SF rise mean radical change?

As the two-year anniversary of the 2020 general election approaches, How Ireland Voted 2020, published earlier this year, is designed to provide close followers of Irish politics – we hesitate to say “political addicts” – with the kind of detailed analysis they have become accustomed to from the previous eight books in the How Ireland Voted series.

The book, like its predecessors, provides an extensive interrogation by DCU’s Gary Murphy, taking time off from writing his acclaimed biography of CJ Haughey, of the lead-in to the election, while the Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy, drawing on in-depth and confidential interviews with key insiders, identifies the strategies that worked – and the ones that didn’t – during the campaign itself.

After Sinn Féin’s poor performance in the 2019 local and European Parliament elections, Leahy shows that a warts-and-all internal review led to important changes in the way the party conducted itself. It entered the general election campaign with a clearer focus on policy solutions, toning down its overt blanket criticism of government policy. The party also placed its most effective spokespeople (Eoin Ó Broin, Louise O’Reilly and Pearse Doherty) at the front of the campaign along with party leader Mary Lou McDonald.

However, it also made probably the biggest campaign blunder of all by reducing its number of candidates in the expectation of vote losses, which may have cost it 10 or more seats given that in fact it gained votes, and the reasons are explored in Theresa Reidy’s analysis of all the parties’ candidate selection tactics.


Everyone knows that Sinn Féin won the election, emerging as the party with the most votes, but where and why did it succeed? The results analysis chapter, by Michael Gallagher, looks in detail at the gains and losses of the parties around the country and at the role played by vote transfers in determining the destination of the crucial last seat in a large number of constituencies.

Kevin Cunningham and Michael Marsh, through forensic examination of the opinion poll and survey data, demonstrate that Sinn Féin broadened its voter base noticeably, drawing support from middle-class voters in larger numbers than before and beginning to secure support among older age cohorts. Their chapter also explores the strong role played these days by education, age and ideology, as much as conventional definitions of social class, in influencing voting behaviour, and highlights the decisive role played by voters’ belief that Sinn Féin was the party best placed to deal with the issues of housing and health.

The continued strong showing of Sinn Féin in opinion polls since the election raises the potential that patterns of party competition have been permanently changed in Ireland since the earthquake election of 2011, which is why we gave the book the subtitle The End of an Era.

A different perspective on the campaign is given by six candidates – all in the end elected – who give reports from the front line. Some sensed from the start that the public mood would be receptive to their message, while one acknowledges that the wind was against candidates of her party and she knew she would have to work very hard to take a seat. Most encountered some surprising experiences on the campaign trail – one even found that his status as a student in Trinity College Dublin was used against him! All emphasise the central role of volunteers in building support and getting out the vote.

The importance of local factors is also demonstrated in Chapter 9 by Adrian Kavanagh (Maynooth) and his co-authors, who use innovative maps to show in vivid colour how candidates’ support tends to peak around their home base and how parties sometimes “bailiwick” constituencies by asking voters in different areas to vote for their candidates in a particular order.

Once the election was over it took a record 140 days for a government to emerge, by which time the Covid pandemic, which had been merely a speck on the distant horizon on election day, was the dominant issue on the political agenda. In Chapter 13, Eoin O’Malley discusses the factors that underpin coalition negotiations and, on the basis of interviews with actors central to the negotiations, outlines how the pandemic further complicated the thorny political arithmetic.

With Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael implacably opposed to any discussions with Sinn Féin, it seemed inevitable that the two parties would cross the great, but long irrelevant, divide in politics generated by the civil war, but right up to the end there was uncertainty as to whether those parties’ members, and above all members of the Green Party, would endorse the agreement finally reached by their leaders.

The book is rounded off by a reflective chapter by John Coakley, who considers the implications for the future of the party system of both the election result and the unique government that emerged from it, placing the Irish picture within a broader comparative perspective.

Other chapters throw further light on the main theme of the election, namely the surge of Sinn Féin and the continued decline of the traditional two main parties. In Chapter 2, Rory Costello and his co-authors examine the record of the 2016-20 government in the light of what it promised to do back in 2016. He reports that some central policy commitments were delivered, but that overall the government’s delivery of election manifesto promises lagged behind the record of minority governments in other countries.

Importantly, Fianna Fáil was also entangled in the negative evaluations through its participation in the confidence and supply arrangement of 2016-20. In Chapter 5, Mary C. Murphy shows that Fine Gael’s hopes that the electorate would reward it for its perceived success in dealing with Brexit, and that this could prove a trump card, were dashed as voters, seemingly thinking that the problem was now in the past, simply did not regard Brexit as a salient issue.

Social media play an increasing role in campaigns, especially for younger voters, and in Chapter 6 Kirsty Park and Jane Suiter analyse the data and find that, on Google platforms, Sinn Féin was the most searched for political party and outperformed its rivals on all the main social media channels. Uncertainty as to whether Mary Lou McDonald should be included in the final leaders’ debate also worked to its advantage, and the party was not slow to capitalise on this. By the end of the campaign, the chapter shows, all parties were claiming to represent the “change” that the voters seemed to want.

Two chapters in the book, though, resist the narrative that “all is changed”. Claire McGing’s analysis of the Seanad election highlights that Sinn Féin actually lost seats compared with the previous election; it took only five seats compared with 20 for Fianna Fáil, a huge contrast with the scenario in the Dáil.

And in Chapter 11, Lisa Keenan and Gail McElroy, basing their analysis on a new survey of the parties’ candidates, question the dominance of the narrative that 2020 was a “change” election with the emergence of a strong left-versus-right dimension. While Fine Gael candidates do place themselves further right than the other parties’ candidates, they are still fairly centrist, while Sinn Féin candidates, while placing themselves furthest to the left, are not greatly different from those of the other parties when it comes to their stances on the main issues. Nor have the parties’ policy stances changed much since 2007.

Whether the 2020 election really was the harbinger of a new left-versus-right politics, or whether in its consequences it was not so different after all, will no doubt be explored fully in the 10th book in the How Ireland Voted series, forthcoming, we expect, in 2024 or 2025.

How Ireland Voted 2020, edited by Michael Gallagher, Michael Marsh, Theresa Reidy, is published by Palgrave Macmillan