As the dust settles on Ireland’s election and parties jostle to form a government, or to avoid blame for not forming one, it is worth exploring what lies behind the superlatives with which commentators greeted the result.
Was this really an historic shock, an electoral earthquake, a herald of political deadlock? Or should we have seen it coming years ago?
One feature of most European elections is a remarkable level of voter stability. Parties may alternate in government, but voters tend to replicate their electoral choice from election to election. A flight of voters from one party is commonly balanced by an influx of refugees from other parties.
The Irish three-party system was for long remarkably stable. Over the period 1932-2007, average support for Fianna Fáil was 45 per cent, Fine Gael 30 per cent and Labour 11 per cent. Election results seldom strayed far from these figures.
But this stability did not survive. In 2011 Fianna Fáil was punished severely for its handling of the economic crisis, collapsing to 17 per cent. In 2016, it was the turn of its arch rivals, a Fine Gael-Labour coalition, to suffer a similar electoral drubbing. The beneficiaries of that swing were a set of minor party and independent deputies.
The big news in the February 2020 election was a dramatic jump in support for Sinn Féin (from 14 per cent to 25 per cent), with the pain widely distributed. Fine Gael lost 4 per cent, Fianna Fáil 2 per cent, and smaller parties also fell back.
This outcome was unexpected. After steady growth until 2016, Sinn Féin had collapsed in the presidential election of 2018 (when its candidate won a mere 6 per cent), in the local elections of 2019 (9 p er cent) and in the concurrent European elections (12 per cent). Opinion polls, though kinder to the party, showed average support falling from a high of 20 per cent in the third quarter of 2018 to 15 per cent by the end of 2019.
There were nevertheless clear indications of radical electoral change. Seven polls in early 2020 registered a steady drop in Fine Gael support and a rise for Sinn Féin. The last of these, published in the Irish Times on 20 January, predicted the election results with almost perfect accuracy. By election date, the rise of Sinn Féin should have surprised no one.
The "earthquake" metaphor arose not just from the Sinn Féin surge but also from the party’s image as radical and uncompromising. The two other big parties could present this electoral upstart as not fully "constitutional" and as unapologetic about its former paramilitary allies, the IRA.
In this, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael blissfully brushed aside their own turbulent but largely forgotten histories. The origins of both lay in the bloody independence conflict of 1919-22, and their early leaders had a perspective on political violence not greatly different from the late twentieth-century Sinn Féin.
One echo of the 1919-22 conflict intruded unexpectedly just before the election. A government proposal to commemorate the pre-1922 Royal Irish Constabulary (a police force noted for its political as well as its peace-keeping role) attracted widespread opposition. Nationalist critics pointed out that the force had relied on the notoriously aggressive Black and Tans, poorly trained and aggressive reinforcements hurriedly recruited in Britain. This exposed continuing deep divisions over interpretations of the past, and threatened electoral damage on the government.
But a post-election exit poll suggested that voters were motivated more by concrete domestic issues than by nationalist metaphysics. The central issues for voters were health (ranked first by 32 per cent of respondents) and housing (26 per cent), with Brexit languishing at 1 per cent; Irish unity was not mentioned.
Sinn Féin’s contemporary image increasingly resembles that of a radical left party rather than of a militant nationalist one, its popularity resting on its promise to deliver on everyday citizen concerns. The shock generated by the election was cushioned by the realisation that Sinn Féin is now a conventional vote-seeking party rather than a militaristic ogre.
When it comes to the political arithmetic of the new Dáil, the statistics are startling. The three largest parties shared almost 70 per cent of the seats between them (with Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael respectively winning 24, 23 and 22 per cent). The remaining 31 per cent were divided between four small parties (the Greens on 8 per cent, with three smaller parties of the left sharing 11 per cent more or less equally between them) and no fewer than 21 one-person micro-parties or independent deputies.
Formally, this Dáil of 160 members contains 28 autonomous party-like political entities, none able to control even a quarter of the seats. But any combination of two of the three largest parties would fall just a little short of the 50 per cent threshold, leaving it within easy reach of a deal with minor groups to construct a parliamentary majority.
Since most parties are ultimately power-seeking, arithmetic often trumps ideology in government formation. While policy differences do matter – sometimes, a lot – a political culture that accepts coalition as a conventional democratic instrument must also accept significant policy compromise.
The election should be seen as a continuing evolution rather than as a singular departure in Irish electoral history. It was more a tremor than an earthquake. (The earthquake had already struck in 2011, with a major aftershock in 2016.) And the political deadlock it ushered in is as much a consequence of Dáil arithmetic as it is of ideological revolution.
John Coakley is a professor in the school of history, anthropology, philosophy and politics at Queen’s University Belfast and a fellow at the Geary Institute, University College Dublin
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