After helping Boris Johnson deliver Brexit, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has suffered a humiliating defeat as the Feb. 8 election in Ireland comes to a close and results are finalized. In addition to Fine Gael emerging a distant third, Varadkar himself suffered a personal embarrassment by becoming the first sitting Taoiseach in Ireland’s history not to lead polls in his own constituency.
In 2017, Varadkar became Ireland’s youngest Taoiseach at the age of 38. He was seen as part of a new crop of progressive leaders emerging on the world stage.
But despite his key role in the Brexit negotiations, Varadkar failed to address domestic issues such as housing, which turned the middle class against him. As Mark Landler said, many view Varadkar less as a symbol of progress than of privilege.
Sinn Fein Surges To Win Popular Vote
In a surprising turn of events, the left wing Sinn Fein, which has historical links with the Irish Republican Army, made a remarkable last minute surge, emerging on top in the popular vote. With all the first preference votes counted, the party had garnered 24.5 percent, Fianna Fail 22.2 percent and Vardakar’s Fine Gael a mere 20.9 percent.
This means that in terms of the popular vote, Sinn Fein won the elections. However, because Ireland has a system of proportional representation the party won’t have the largest number of seats by virtue of being a small party. Furthermore, since no party is expected to reach the 80-seat threshold, a coalition government is inevitable.
Varadkar’s Next Move
There is already speculation that Varadkar may try to form a coalition government with Fianna Fail. This would not be a surprising move since Varadkar’s last government was put together following a deal with Fianna Fail and Independent TDs. If the two parties decide to form another coalition, it would mean Sinn Fein would get to play the role of the main opposition party.
However, such an arrangement would be suicidal for both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael since it would mean ignoring the voice of the people who had voted overwhelmingly for Sinn Fein. As one commentator said “Brexit has shown us how difficult it is to ignore the voice of the people, and a third of the electorate voted for Sinn Fein.”
Sinn Fein’s Next Steps
Meanwhile, the leader of Sinn Fein, Mary McDonald, has also been trying to reach out to smaller left wing parties in her attempts to form a government without involving the two main parties. Nonetheless, this will be a tall order because it would require the involvement of almost all the elected members.
The other option would be for one of the two main parties to form a coalition government with Sinn Fein. There are no signs that such a coalition would be impossible, especially after Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin refused to rule out a possible deal between the parties.
Sinn Fein Will Have Significant Power Going Forward
Whatever the case, Sinn Fein cannot be ignored in Irish politics anymore. It will either be in government or in opposition. According to the current projections, it will take 37 seats in the 160 seat Irish Parliament.
Following the party’s surprising performance, McDonald declared “this campaign has been about change and giving Sinn Fein a chance to demonstrate what it feels like when it is led by or has a party of the people in it, that has been the theme of our discussions and conversations. This vote is for Sinn Fein to be in government, for Sinn Fein to make a difference, for Sinn Fein to be tested, for Sinn Fein to deliver.”
Irish Election’s Impact On UK Politics
One of the other facts that cannot be overlooked is the effects of this outcome on UK politics as a whole, especially on the question of independence and EU relations. Sinn Fein has always pursued a policy of Northern Ireland being given a special status in the EU, with the whole island of Ireland remaining in the bloc. On its website, it describes itself as an Irish political party dedicated to the reunification of Ireland and an end to the British jurisdiction over the island.
During the Brexit standoff in 2018, McDonald stated that Irish unity was the best way to stop Brexit. The party also heavily criticized Varadkar by arguing that he had made too many concessions to Johnson during the negotiations for Brexit in terms of the “Irish backstop.”
Clues Of Sinn Fein’s Future Political Actions
The nationalists would be likely to champion a referendum that would lead to the unification of the whole island, since Sinn Fein’s election manifesto stated that “We need a national forum, a Citizens’ Assembly to have the discussion and we need to start the planning for the unity referendum.”
In relation to this, it promised to seek the full implementation of the “Good Friday Agreement”, “Publish a White Paper on Irish unity,” “Establish a Joint Committee on Irish unity” and “Secure a referendum, North and South, on Irish unity.”
At the moment, forming a coalition government will be a complex affair which is likely to take weeks, and it is worth noting that if the negotiations fail, then another election will be called.