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It is difficult to overstate how dramatic and transformative the results of GE2020 have turned out to be. Ireland’s version of the two-party system has been broken. We likely will have a Taoiseach who doesn’t come from the two parties that have rotated power for nearly one hundred years.
The result for Sinn Féin is truly breathtaking. It’s hard to recall that six weeks ago when the election was called, this was to be a “bunker down and defend” election for them. In last May’s Local and European elections, the party lost half of its councillors and two of its three MEPs. In the North, the downward trend continued with what was a presupposed heartland seat in Derry switching to the SDLP. Controversies like Paddy Holohan were hurdles that threatened to throw them off their game. But the party revised its strategy to focus less on bashing Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and instead concentrated on fixes to the issues about which people cared most; housing, healthcare and insurance. And so, lo and behold, 2020 proved to be the change election Ireland has been due since the cataclysmic economic crash. Sinn Féin was finally able to convince voters that FG and FF are “Two sides of the same coin”. Or… “two cheeks of the same arse”.
Are Sinn Fein normal now?
Let’s not pretend that Sinn Féin are a run of the mill Irish political party. Many activists have reconciled themselves with the party’s past as they see it as the best vehicle for driving progressive change in Ireland. This is valid and understandable, and should not be dismissed. This could be the same reasoning of those who gave SF their landslide victory across the country. Voting Sinn Féin was the best way to break the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael cycle. However, we must not forget that three quarters of the electorate did not come to this conclusion.
As Kathy Sheridan of the Irish Times points out: “If it’s difficult to imagine a Sinn Féin minister for justice or foreign affairs, we should ask ourselves why.” The Provisional IRA carried out horrendous acts of violence and terror in the name of the Irish Republic. And Sinn Féin are the closest holders of this inheritance. We cannot and absolutely should not allow them to be excluded from the government. But we also need to challenge their glorification of the IRA. And our tricolour should not be co-opted as their personal brand. This country was fought for and remains to be built by countless tribes and political groups. It does not belong to the one closest to the violent path.
A final point on this issue is if Sinn Féin really wants a united Ireland, then they need to compromise with their opponents, not conquer them. Our fellow Irish citizens of the North did us the favour of waiting patiently for the IRA to mutate into a political party. Now it is for Sinn Féin to show us the courtesy of behaving like a party that deserves to have a place in government, if only to show us we don’t have to have Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.
What about the rest?
Fine Gael have taken their electoral hammering rather stoically. They seem content to crawl onto the opposition benches to lick their wounds.
Labour, having failed to regain any ground from their 2016 shellacking, also appear to want to avoid going into government. Politicians are quick to claim that they want to serve the national interest, but, 9 times out of 10, their priorities will be with party. This is not necessarily a nefarious notion. These parties see their way as the true and righteous way, and indeed, the only way to bring it forth is through government. If you know your party is going to lose seats and therefore, its ability to govern, how can you justify allowing it to be damaged? The better calculation for a leader might be to sit out going into government, regain some popularity in opposition and then challenge from a place of strength in the next election.
Brendan Howlin has fallen on his sword. Watch now as the little party which has struggled to find a place among the busy left-wing opposition benches debates who will be best placed to lead them in a ‘grand revival’.
Fianna Fáil is reeling from the whiplash of not instantly being returned to power. Micheál Martin is going to have to play a precarious game to determine whether he can do a deal with Sinn Féin and then sell that same deal to his own tribe.
The Greens may not have ridden a tsunami, but they’re delighted with the wave that brought them up to twelve TDs, twice as many as they had when in government before 2011. The Social Democrats are also very pleased, finally proving that they can elect beyond their two founders and co-leaders.
As for the rest; the independents were not wiped out, as many had predicted. The ‘Rural Independents’ proved their strength, as did many of the TDs who occupy the further left ideological spectrum, with Gino Kelly and Mick Barry making it back despite being tipped to lose out.
What happens next?
On February 20th, the members of the 33rd Dail will assemble in Leinster House and vote for the next Taoiseach. Between now and then, the leading players will have run themselves ragged, spinning across hotel conference rooms trying to hammer out a coalition deal that will see them move into power. And make no mistake, a deal is absolutely possible. Sinn Féin are ultimate hagglers. They’ve been negotiating and dividing up power in Northern Ireland for over thirty years. Granted, it’s the first time that the crew in the south have had to take the lead, but the party is very much a cross-border organisation. The heavy hitters from up north may not be directly looming over the shoulders of Pearse or Mary Lou, but they will certainly be briefed on any and all developments.
Fianna Fáil have power in their DNA. They may be unsure where to place themselves in this new political landscape, but they can be counted on to take the opportunity to go into government now over another fighting another election this year.