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Fintan O’Toole: Seismic election result has changed Irish political landscape

It may be days before the allocation of Dáil seats is complete but we know this: the old political system is finished

The inevitable cliché after every general election is that the people have spoken. But this time, the message is that, in electoral terms, there is no single “people”.

You don't have to be very old to remember a time, unquestionably, when there was such a thing as a single political system in Ireland.

Almost the entire vote went to three parties of government, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour and almost all of that vote was hoovered up by the two big party machines.

It may be many days before we know fully what Saturday’s vote means in terms of the allocation of Dáil seats and many weeks before we know what that in turn means for the formation of a viable government.


But this we know and know full well: that old system is finished and it is not coming back any time soon.

This is not just a change election - it has changed Irish elections themselves for the foreseeable future. And it has done this by altering the very idea of “change” in Irish electoral politics. We know from the exit poll that 48 per cent of respondents felt it “best to have a change of government”.

There’s nothing at all unusual in that - this is what voters often do. But what that used to mean was change within the rather narrow parameters that the system permitted: mostly, the alteration of a single letter of the alphabet, from FF to FG or vice versa, with a side option of Labour (up if it was out of government, down if it was in) or Independents.

What has happened in 2020 is that, for a huge chunk of voters, change is being seen as something that comes from outside the system. Sinn Féin, the big winner, may be rather more typical of the historic trend in Irish politics than it likes to acknowledge.

But it has been, south of the Border, an outlier, even a pariah. Voters were invited in this election - by the three parties of the old system - to continue to see it that way.

Not without reason, the party that was once inextricable from the IRA and its disastrous campaign of atrocities, was portrayed as a locked cabinet marked “Danger: Radioactive”.

But a lot of voters, especially young ones, decided to open that door anyway. They have gone where they were warned not to go and in doing so they have redrawn the map of Irish politics to include territory previously marked “here be dragons”.

Why have they done so? Why has an electorate that was arguably one of the most risk-averse in the democratic world chosen to take such a risk? There are perhaps as many reasons as there are voters but two of them are worth contemplating because they have profound implications for the formation of a government.

The first big reason is something that should have been obvious but that took Fine Gael in particular by surprise. It is the plain fact that in 2016 three quarters of the electorate voted for someone other than Fine Gael - but we got (in essence) a Fine Gael government anyway.

Brexit and the stabilisation of the economy helped to obscure the democratic deficit that was at work, but did not make it go away. There is quite simply a huge problem with minority government on the scale we have experienced since 2016. Confidence and supply did not supply much confidence in the existing system - people got a government they did not vote for.

Is it really all that surprising that so many of them have rebelled against the old duopoly that gave them this outcome? And if it’s not, we surely have to think very carefully about doing confidence and supply again. Merely switching that system around, so that the faces in government change but we get another government with a quarter of the vote behind it would store up even deeper trouble, and push the electorate towards even more drastic responses.

When nearly a third of voters are saying, according to the exit poll, that the “country needs a radical change in direction”, to produce in essence more of the same is not to create stability. It is to preach a gospel of disillusion with the democratic ideal. We know how the message that “the system is rigged” is working out in other countries.

The second big force is that what people mean by “the economy” has altered. On the figures - numbers in employment, GDP growth and so on - Ireland looks like a well-functioning economy and the old rules suggest that the solid mass of voters will reward those currently in power for that.

But if one thing had now been made abundantly clear, it is that “the economy” for most people includes such basic things as whether or not you can get a decent place to live at a cost you can afford and timely access to essential healthcare.

It also includes more intangible things like a sense of security - when so many people live risky, insecure lives, they are willing to take risks with their votes.

Yes, it’s the economy stupid, but the definition of it that the old system relies on has come to seem, for about half the electorate, pretty stupid in itself. Any new government will have to start with that truth.

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist and writer