Pat Leahy: It is 12 months since Irish politics was supposedly changed forever

Sinn Féin emerged as the big winner in last year’s election, and its rise pushed two old rivals together

The earthquake election of 2020 was not a singular isolated event – it was the third in a series of upheavals to Ireland’s previously settled political topography. Photograph: Getty Images

The earthquake election of 2020 was not a singular isolated event – it was the third in a series of upheavals to Ireland’s previously settled political topography. Photograph: Getty Images

 

This week was the first anniversary of the general election. Twelve months ago today, five days after the election, all the seats were filled, and we surveyed a new political landscape, saw the rules of electoral politics had been rewritten, and wondered at the consequences for government formation: all was changed. So how does that look a year later?

First of all let’s not misinterpret what happened last year. It was dramatic, for sure, but the upending of Irish politics didn’t happen on one day in February 2020; it has been happening for the past decade or longer. The elections just measured it.

The earthquake election of 2020 was not a singular isolated event – it was the third in a series of upheavals to Ireland’s previously settled political topography, benchmarking the great changes in politics, mirroring those in society and culture, in the last decade and a half.

The rise of Sinn Féin pushed the two old rivals together, retaining power but finally ending their duopoly

The wild swings in party support measured by the elections of 2011 and 2016 have their roots in three things: the social changes in Ireland since the 1980s; the natural decline of the monolithic political model that dominated Ireland since the 1920s; and the turbo-charge of the financial crash of 2008 and the subsequent economic crisis.

The result of all that was three general elections in succession which featured seismic changes to our politics; last year was the latest. We would be foolish to say it is the last.

The big winners were Sinn Féin, of course, numerically and politically. Even if the notion peddled by some party members afterwards that the Irish people had voted for Mary Lou McDonald to be taoiseach was both constitutionally illiterate and politically subversive, the party won both the largest share of the vote and then assumed leadership of the opposition from which to grow further, cementing its establishment in a central role in Irish politics for the foreseeable future.

It bounced back from disappointing local and European elections in 2019 to surf a public desire for change. In fighting such an effective campaign, Sinn Féin demonstrated two advantages that remain: it demonstrated the ability to learn from its own mistakes and it has a leader who is a dynamic and forceful campaigner.

We should also acknowledge, though, that Sinn Féin was as surprised by this as anyone else. In the weeks before the campaign began it was trimming its election tickets, fearful it would have too many candidates for too few votes. As it turned out, the opposite was the case. Still, the ability to ride your luck is an important political skill too.

Shotgun marriage

The rise of Sinn Féin pushed the two old rivals together, retaining power but finally ending their duopoly, almost certainly for good.

If the inevitability of their shotgun marriage was apparent to many in the leaderships of the two parties by this day last year, the slowmotion mating dance that followed wasn’t just necessitated by the restrictions of the pandemic, it was required to let their organisations adjust psychologically to what was about to happen.

It has been a long time since there was any significant policy difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but politics is about more than policy. The people who make up these large organisations believed there were differences between them, and those differences were important to them.

Nobody predicts the imminent demise of the coalition anymore; those in power tend not to want to give it up

In the end they did what they always did and behaved pragmatically in the pursuit of power or attendance to the national interest (take your pick). Whatever your view on the old double act, it was a historic moment, and it changed Irish politics forever.

Like all marriages the arrangement took some getting used to. Especially for Fianna Fáil, which endured a torrid few opening months enlivened by a series of entertainingly self-inflicted mishaps.

But as usually happens with coalition governments, things settled down and they found a way to live together. The partnership is pretty solid even if Fianna Fáil TDs have begun making eyes at Sinn Féin.

Nobody predicts the imminent demise of the coalition anymore; those in power tend not to want to give it up. And even if what happens in Fianna Fáil after Micheál Martin swaps roles with Leo Varadkar could yet become a source of instability, the party is unlikely to conduct its business entirely without regard to what the public thinks of it.

Best election

But the election was about more than the big three. The Green Party had its best ever election, was brought into government by its understated but effective leader, and if it is having a difficult time in government it’s probably doing better than the last time.

Independents demonstrated their enduring strength as one of the great quirks of the Irish political system.

The Social Democrats were completely rejuvenated, and some sort of merger or even centre-left alliance between that party, Labour and the handful of compatible Independents remains the most obvious development in Irish politics. It seems no closer than it was 12 months ago.

Last year’s mood for change may have reflected weariness with the old establishment, but it was given form in frustration, especially among the young

What does any of this mean for the future? And what of the great mood for change that animated the election campaign last year?

It is hard to see beyond the pandemic and to the politics that will follow it. But my guess is that the pandemic – hard and all as this is to imagine now – will not matter all that much once it is in the past. Politics is always forward- looking, and the mood of voters will stem from the conditions that exist when they are asked for their opinion.

Last year’s mood for change may have reflected weariness with the old establishment, but it was given form in frustration, especially among the young, at successive failures in public policy on housing, on health, on public services, on quality-of-life issues. That’s where the mood for change was focused.

The politics of the post-pandemic period will, I think, return to these bread and butter issues.

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