Election preview: Ireland

This year began without a single national election scheduled anywhere in western Europe – something that hasn’t happened since the Second World War. But it was not to be: on 14 January, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar announced that his country would go to the polls a year early. Tomorrow is the day.

This is the first time independent Ireland has ever voted on a Saturday. Varadkar – who took office in 2017 following the retirement of his predecessor, Enda Kenny – explained that this would be more convenient for voters than a weekday election, especially families, students and those working away from home. It’s remarkable that such obvious common sense had failed to sway any previous government.

The last election, in 2016, saw the incumbent Fine Gael party suffer a large adverse swing but remain the largest party in parliament. (See my report here.) It finished with 49 of the 158 seats, narrowly ahead of its main opponent, Fianna Fáil, with 44. The left-wing nationalists of Sinn Féin were third with 23.

Four small parties of the left and centre-left had 18 seats between them, and there were an extraordinary 24 independents, some of them grouped in alliances. A subsequent redistribution has increased the size the parliament by two.

Attentive readers might notice that I didn’t offer any ideological label for the two major parties. By most criteria, they should both be called centre or centre-right; their rivalry derives not from any major policy difference but from historical causes going back to the Irish civil war of 1922.

It was a mark of how obsolete that division had become when, in the aftermath of the last election and in the absence of any easy alternative, Fianna Fáil agreed to support a minority Fine Gael government. It seems to have managed reasonably well. But if the parties hoped that other alternatives would present themselves this time, they look like being disappointed.

Fianna Fáil’s problem is that it has never really recovered from having been in government at the time of the financial crisis in 2008. At the subsequent election its vote fell by more than half; it won back some ground in 2016, but its 24.3% was a huge comedown from pre-crisis times when it almost invariably topped 40%. It is still polling in the mid-20s.

Fine Gael’s problem is not so much its own vote – its 25.5% in 2016 was not far off its historic average. But the centre-left Labour Party, which has generally served as its junior partner, suffered a collapse in its vote to just 6.6%, and has failed to recover. It is polling in the mid single digits.

And then there’s the thing that most looks like again pushing the two major parties into each other’s embrace: the rise of Sinn Féin. It first made a real impact in 2011, when it won 9.9% and 14 seats; in 2016 that grew to 13.8% and 23 seats. Polls now show it polling above 20%, threatening or even passing Fine Gael for second place.

Clearly Sinn Féin has benefited from the new amity between the majors; it can present itself as the only real alternative. But it has also been given a boost in the last few months by Boris Johnson’s decision to cut Northern Ireland loose in his Brexit negotiations, thus raising Irish reunification as a serious possibility for the first time in living memory.

As Naomi O’Leary puts it in Politico:

Support for an end to partition has surged in polls, and there is a widely-held expectation that a referendum on the issue is only a matter of time.

For a younger generation that witnessed and took part in the once-unthinkable political sea changes represented by the equal marriage and abortion referendums, other historic events may not seem so far-fetched.

Fine Gael (very firmly) and Fianna Fáil (rather less firmly) have ruled out coalition with Sinn Féin. But if they stick to that, it’s hard to see them not being stuck with just each other. And that may lead to a new party system, where a semi permanent Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil alliance faces off against a left-wing alliance headed by Sinn Féin.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, because the translation of votes into seats can be unpredictable. Voting is proportional, but only within fairly small constituencies of three to five members each, and voting is for individual candidates rather than parties. It’s a lot like a more densely-populated version of Tasmania.

That said, last time around the seats won reflected the proportions of vote rather well. But Sinn Féin does have a history of underperforming relative to the opinion polls, and this year will probably be hampered by the fact that it is only standing 42 candidates – even if it tops the poll it would be almost impossible for it to become the largest party in terms of seats.

A final point to note is that there is usually no counting on the night, so don’t expect results on Sunday morning (Australian time). There is no electoral commission (one has been promised), but the Irish Times website will have good coverage.


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