It’s just gone 3am in Dublin, so counting in Saturday’s Irish election seems, reasonably enough, to have mostly finished for the night. There’s quite a lot to go, but we already know enough to say that this is a game-changing election.
Voting is by Hare-Clark proportional representation in 39 three-, four- or five-member electorates. As I said on Friday, it’s like a more densely-populated Tasmania. So most of the work is in the distribution of preferences; we know all of the raw vote totals.
What they show is Sinn Féin topping the poll with 24.5%, up 10.7% on its 2016 result. Fianna Fáil is next on 22.2% (down 2.1%), closely followed by incumbents Fine Gael on 20.9% (down 4.7%). Then there’s a big gap to the Greens on 7.1% (up 4.4%) and Labour 4.8% (down 2.2%).
If you just look at the seats decided so far, it looks even better for Sinn Féin – 72 of the total 160 have been declared, and it has won 29 of them. But that’s highly misleading. In fact, the reason why Sinn Féin’s total looks so good at first is the same reason that it will end up under-representing its vote.
The problem is, as I pointed out in my preview, that Sinn Féin doesn’t run as many candidates as the other major parties: usually only one per electorate. That means that its vote is heavily concentrated, so in most seats its candidate is likely to be the first elected. But it also means that much of its vote is wasted; it could have been used to elect more MPs, but you can’t win seats without candidates.
It’s a good strategy if you’re unsure about getting one candidate up, since it avoids votes leaking in preferences. In this case, however, it hurt badly. There are six electorates where Sinn Féin has more than 1.75 quotas, almost guaranteeing a second seat, but only a single candidate.
So instead of a handy lead for Sinn Féin in terms of seats, the three big parties are going to come out very close to equal. My best guess has Fianna Fáil in the lead with 41 seats (one of which is the Speaker), Sinn Féin and Fine Gael both on 38, and 43 for everyone else, including 16 independents.
Don’t put too much stock in those precise numbers; they’re all give or take a few. But the bottom line is that it’s almost certain to be a parliament in which any two of the three big parties will have a majority between them, or will be close enough to it to be confident of getting by with the support of some minor parties or independents.
That’s very good news for Fianna Fáil, because it’s the one in the middle. It’s abundantly clear that Sinn Féin and Fine Gael won’t work together, but there’s no insuperable obstacle to Fianna Fáil co-operating with either of them.
Which way will it choose to go? It’s already been tolerating a Fine Gael government in the last term; they are both parties of the establishment, studiously moderate and centrist in contrast to the radical Sinn Féin. I suggested on Friday that Ireland could be on the way to a new party system in which “a semi permanent Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil alliance faces off against a left-wing alliance headed by Sinn Féin.”
But there are other factors pushing Fianna Fáil the other way. Alliance between the two old parties this time around hasn’t been a success; as often happens with grand coalitions, both of them have lost votes. And Irish reunification, Sinn Féin’s signature issue, is pushing its way onto the agenda – Fianna Fáil, traditionally much more nationalist than Fine Gael, will be anxious not to let Sinn Féin make too much of the running.
Potentially of most significance is the way the numbers finally come out in the new parliament. The minor parties are all, broadly speaking, on the left; the independents are more of a mixed bag, but they are generally, almost by definition, anti-establishment. In a competition for the 40-plus votes outside of the big three, Sinn Féin will start with a clear advantage.
That could make numbers for a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition quite precarious. Fianna Fáil might be better off making an offer to Sinn Féin, or else stand aside and let the latter try to put together a left-wing government.
Updates to come during the week as the situation (perhaps) become clearer.