Irish Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar took a gamble by recently calling a general election in Ireland. He hoped that his success in resolving the Irish border crisis during the Brexit negotiations, and a healthy economy that has recovered since the 2008 Recession, would result in his party increasing the number of seats it currently holds in the Dáil Éireann, the Republic of Ireland’s lower chamber.
Sinn Fein’s Surprising Electoral Success
However, Sinn Fein, Ireland’s oldest nationalist party, have stormed to power instead. They have broken the two-party system that has dominated Irish politics since the Irish Free State was founded in 1922, which has seen either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail wrestle for power. The party’s President, Mary Lou McDonald, said the 2020 General Election was ‘something of a revolution in the ballot box.’
With all first preferences counted, the nationalists achieved a vote share of 24.5 percent compared to 22.2 percent for Fianna Fail and 20.9 percent for Fine Gael. No party will win enough seats for an outright majority. Sinn Fein will now attempt to form a government, although Varadkar has ruled out a coalition with the nationalists due to differences over tax policies and the group’s Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorist group links.
‘Significant Incompatibilities’ Exist
Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin did not rule out working with Sinn Fein, but said ‘significant incompatibilities’ still existed. Considering the Irish economy has grown since the 2008 Recession and the Irish Government helped Boris Johnson pave the way for a Brexit deal that has ended fears about a hard border for now, it begs the question as to how Sinn Fein has had its best performance since Ireland left the UK in 1922.
Why Did Sinn Fein Win?
Many voters feel left behind as the Irish economy started to boom again in recent years. The average monthly rent in Ireland is €373 higher than in 2008, a Daft.ie report found last year.
According to Focus Ireland, the number of people losing homes in Ireland has increased by 280 percent since December 2014. More than one in three people in emergency accommodation is a child. However, this number does not include ‘hidden homelessness’, which refers to people who are living in squats or ‘sofa surfing’ with friends. Women and children staying in domestic violence refuges and people sleeping rough are not included in these figures either.
The President of the Irish Hospital Consultants’ Association, Dr Tom Ryan, told the Irish Times that in 2017, there were 589,000 people on hospital waiting lists and that figure had no chance of decreasing.
Sinn Fein Capitalized On Fine Gael’s Failures
Considering Fine Gael has been in power since 2011, Sinn Fein took advantage of the party’s failure to tackle these issues. They promised voters that they would initiate a massive house-building program, institute a rent freeze and provide tax credits to help those with high rents.
Many young people who witnessed how voting can make a difference in elections during the abortion and marriage equality referendums flocked to the nationalists to deliver a bloody nose to the main two main parties.
Denis Staunton of the Irish Times wrote in the Evening Standard that Varadkar’s ability to solve Brexit before the election helped Sinn Fein because it allowed the opposition to concentrate voters’ minds on domestic issues. This meant Britain’s EU exit was not a central focus of this election. Only one percent of people said Brexit was a concern for them before they voted.
This Election Changes Everything For Ireland
Following on from a decade that saw many surprising electoral results, 2020 has already followed that trend in Ireland. Although it could take weeks for a new government to be formed, Sinn Fein are likely to lead some sort of coalition, and that will have wider consequences for the whole of Ireland. It will also impact upon the country’s relations with the UK, the US and EU member states. For the Irish, this election has changed everything.