Earthquake election brings SF to position of unprecedented power

Previously unshakeable fealty of electorate to party system shattered

Mary Lou McDonald had said that Sinn Féin are in talks with other parties of the left with a view to forming a government. Video: Bryan O’Brien

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The results of this earthquake general election will continue to unfold but it is already clear that the landscape on which our politics happens has been reordered for the third time in three elections.

If change was the message of this election, wild volatility is the trend of the last three.

There is no reason to think that this process will stop this year.

Since the economic crash ended the previously unshakeable fealty of the Irish electorate to the voting patterns that had dominated for decades, elections have featured sudden, sharp swings. Basically, Irish voters are liable to do anything.

The swing this time was to Sinn Féin – and in proportions that, while signalled by the opinion polls, had not been truly comprehended by either that party or its competitors until the ballot boxes were opened. But since its first TD was elected in Cork South-Central, where Donncha Ó Laoghaire roundly beat Micheál Martin and Simon Coveney to top the poll, the party has enjoyed the spectacle of Sinn Féin candidates charging home in early counts all over the country, often with huge – and electorally wasteful – surpluses.

'Unprecedented power'

The election has brought the party to a position of unprecedented power in the Republic. Mary Lou McDonald must now decide what she wants to do with that newfound power. She says she wants to go into government; it remains to be seen how earnestly she wishes to pursue that objective.

Sinn Féin wants power to advance its agenda of economic reform and Irish unity. But it will be acutely conscious of the experience of the Labour Party, the beneficiary of past surges in support – also among voters seeking a change – which entered government with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and suffered decimation at the subsequent elections.

For a party that always thinks long term, there are as many political arguments for Sinn Féin staying out of government as for going in.

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For Fine Gael, the party is facing a loss of seats, and – perhaps – the loss of power. But it fared much better than it feared a week ago, when a full-scale meltdown seemed possible.

Projections suggest that losses are inevitable, though. High-profile figures like Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty and outspoken backbencher Kate O’Connell are tipped for the chop, while Minister of State for higher education Mary Mitchell-O’Connor could yet be replaced by newcomer party colleague Jennifer Carroll MacNeill.

When they elected him, Fine Gael TDs – and it was the TDs that elected him taoiseach, rather than the public – hoped that Leo Varadkar could be a transformative figure, an election winner. In recent weeks it became clear that wasn’t going to happen. But he could yet manoeuvre them back into government.

For Fianna Fáil the result is a disappointment, and a paradox. It’s the second-lowest result in its history after the bailout massacre of 2011. But politics is a funny old game. Micheál Martin may yet end up as the leader of the largest party in the Dáil if later counts break his way.

Government formation

The result confines his options for government dramatically, and for both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the focus is moving inexorably and smartly towards government formation. Their leaders will have to make some far-reaching decisions quickly and under pressure. Should they hang separately or together?

The Green Party is also looking at a paradox – a disappointing result that may still end up as its best ever. Eamon Ryan has made his ambition to be part of the next government clear over the course of the campaign but those ambitions have taken a battering from these results.

They are not, however, entirely extinguished; even a combination of two of the big three might fall a bit short of the 80-seat mark necessary to command a Dáil majority. If so, such a coalition might need some help, and the Greens might be willing to supply it. When the Lord closes a door, he opens a little window.

The Labour Party lost the seats held by Joan Burton and the retiring Willie Penrose, and looks set to lose that held by Jan O’Sullivan, though it nurses hopes of replacing some of these losses with Aodhán Ó Ríordáin in Dublin Bay North and Ged Nash in Louth.

Hopes are faltering for Kevin Humphreys in Dublin Bay South, while Alan Kelly will be in the scrap of his life to hold on in Tipperary. But the reality is that Labour is a party on life support on the national stage, and you’d wonder where its growth is going to come from during another spell in opposition.

Independents

The smaller parties and Independents have recorded inevitably mixed fortunes. Things are looking up for the Social Democrats, which won’t have escaped Labour’s attention.

There were headlining victories for Michael Healy-Rae in Kerry and Micheal Collins in Cork South-West, for Richard Boyd Barrett in Dún Laoghaire and Bríd Smith in Dublin South-Central. But losses and retirements are likely to diminish the number of Independents in the next Dáil.

The fate of the Independents who were part of the outgoing Government tells us something important about Irish politics today.

Two retirements in the face of probable losses – Finian McGrath and John Halligan – an actual loss in the form of Shane Ross, two almost certain losses for Katherine Zappone and Kevin “Boxer” Moran and just one survivor in Sean Canney will give anyone contemplating government food for thought.

It is not just parties that are punished for being in government. Independents can face the public wrath too.

This is now a feature of Irish politics that will weigh on the minds of everyone engaged in the elaborate dance of government formation in the days ahead.