No votes are counted yet, but the general election of 2020 was surprising from beginning to end. No doubt more surprises await when the votes are counted on Sunday.
No contest in Irish political history has been been so unpredictable. The central dynamic of the campaign – a desire by many voters for “change”, however they defined it – was evident from early on. That was not entirely unexpected: the parties are professional operations and had done their research. They had a fair grasp of the public mood. They thought they were ready for a change election. But they weren’t. Nobody was.
Two widespread predictions about the campaign were pretty much immediately disproved. The first was that it would be the climate change election. It wasn’t. The voters were asked in several ways how much they cared about climate change, and what they were prepared to do about it. Their answers were blunt: not much; not much.
The Green Party should have its best election ever on Saturday, and could well be part of the next government. But the idea that the Irish public are demanding that their politicians impose upon them changes on their lifestyles in order to tackle climate change is no longer sustainable. That will limit what the next government can do about climate change, no matter who is in it. You can only get so far ahead of the public. This is one of the important lessons from the election.
The campaign seemed to pass the Greens by. The biggest stir made by the Greens was when their Mayo candidate Saoirse McHugh said that not alone would going into coalition with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael make her sick, but in an ideal world she wouldn’t be that into the whole idea of governments anyway. If the party is to wield power and implement its agenda on climate change, it’s going to have to get better at politics.
The second prediction that bit the dust pretty early in the campaign was that this would be a contest principally between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, a throwback to the days of FitzGerald and Haughey when the big two were almost all that mattered in Irish politics.
With the caveat that no seats have been filled, in this campaign it no longer made sense to talk about the big two anymore. The big two became the big three. RTÉ’s decision to admit the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald to the final televised leaders’ debate – in violation of its own previously declared rules – was a necessary acknowledgement of this. To have done otherwise would have brought the event into disrepute.
As it was, more than a million viewers watched McDonald land some characteristic zingers on her opponents, but also ship serious damage on the party’s Achilles’ heel: its support for and, in the case of some members, active participation in a 30-year campaign of violence that was opposed by the overwhelming majority of Irish people.
The sudden focus on Sinn Féin’s history was the next surprise. The controversy over the party’s stance on the existence of the Special Criminal Court and its behaviour relating to the unsolved murder 13 years ago of Paul Quinn – beaten to death after an alleged row with the son of a former IRA commander, his family say – are really proxies for this issue, and the question that is its inevitable corollary: is Sinn Féin a normal democratic party? While voters will make up their own minds on that, this campaign has shown that it doesn’t always behave like one.
The first Irish Times poll of the campaign offered a clear signpost of how it would all proceed: three-quarters of the electorate said they wanted a change of government. They were divided – more or less evenly – between those who wanted a radical change, and those who wanted moderate change. Sinn Féin charged after the former, Fianna Fáil tip-toed towards the latter.
Throughout, it was Sinn Féin that made the running, and the headlines. Canvassers from all parties reported from the doorsteps that the Sinn Féin breakthrough was real. The party’s momentum did something else, too: it squeezed out the smaller parties. The Greens, the Social Democrats, Labour, Solidarity-People Before Profit (Richard Boyd Barrett’s tub-thumping in the first debate notwithstanding), the Independents of various hues and denominations – they all struggled to be heard as the big three, not the big two, locked horns.
The Fianna Fáil campaign seemed at times to be a one-man band, with Micheál Martin ubiquitous. His offering to the voters – a bit of change, but not too much, mind – was cleverly pitched, if rather thin. But Martin is a good salesman to middle Ireland, and his party’s ground game in the constituencies is without parallel. If he pulls this off, and brings Fianna Fáil back into government as the largest party in Dáil Éireann, less than a decade after it stood on the brink of extinction, it will be an extraordinary feat.
Flaccid poll ratings
In Fine Gael headquarters, meanwhile, the difficult start and the flaccid poll ratings were not unexpected. Party chiefs knew that they would be trailing Fianna Fáil; they never imagined they would soon be trailing Sinn Féin too. Don’t worry, they told the troops, this is what we expected. There’s no need for panic. But they were wrong. There was every need for panic. But Fine Gael didn’t realise that until it was too late.
Varadkar, in his first general election as party leader (will he get another?), was actually performing well; his debates were decent and his canvasses surprisingly warm. Some party sources had fretted how he might manage the inevitably tactile and kinetic nature of an Irish general election campaign, but he was fine. He even seemed to be enjoying it. Varadkar’s conversations with individual voters weren’t the problem; it was Fine Gael’s conversation with the electorate at large that wasn’t going well.
Early on, Fine Gael Ministers turned their guns not on the surging Sinn Féin, but on Fianna Fáil – an assault which culminated in Simon Coveney’s uncharacteristic attack on Micheál Martin, who he said he knew “better than most” as “not the person I want leading Ireland into the second half of the Brexit challenge”. One Fianna Fáiler even counted them; over half of all Fine Gael’s press releases were attacks on Fianna Fáil, he reckoned. Varadkar’s decision to raise the possibility of a grand coalition with Fianna Fáil in the first televised debate hampered Martin’s claims to be offering the voters a change – but it opened up space for Sinn Féin to do so.
Even late in the campaign, senior Fine Gael figures were still in a state of some bemusement that the campaign did not proceed as they intended, and had anticipated. Perhaps this is a case of no plan surviving first contact with the enemy. Certainly, many observers were puzzled at the party’s lack of a clear message (in an age when campaigns demand them as the price of entry) and its adherence to the attacks on Fianna Fáil when they were so clearly getting them nowhere.
But in reality, an ill-chosen campaign message and strategy wasn’t Fine Gael’s only problem. It was also the attrition of nearly a decade in government, some of it in the most difficult of times. It was its own failure to deal effectively in the past 12 months with the storms that invariably engulf an administration searching – as this one was – for direction and purpose: broadband; the national children’s hospital; Maria Bailey; Dara Murphy; take your pick. Fine Gael was always going to be up against it in this election. But much of the time, the party did not help itself.
If the strength of the change narrative and the dynamic it would impose on the campaign was not foreseen, the main issues of the campaign were exactly what had been expected: health and housing. Sinn Féin profited from both, especially housing, where its spokesman Eoin Ó Broin was especially effective. Like other aspects of its policy platform, Sinn Féin’s housing policy was designed to appeal to younger voters squeezed out of the housing market – and it found a ready audience there.
The backdrop to this campaign was that the Government was deeply, deeply unpopular. That stems not just from a sense among many people that it is out of touch with their daily needs and concerns, but because people see shortcomings in public services, public provision and management of markets, such as housing. They believe things should be better. In the end, Fine Gael could not get over that.