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Political stagnation is more likely than change in a nation divided

Kevin Doyle


Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin addresses the media after casting his vote in Ireland's national election in Cork, Ireland, February 8, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin addresses the media after casting his vote in Ireland's national election in Cork, Ireland, February 8, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls


Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin addresses the media after casting his vote in Ireland's national election in Cork, Ireland, February 8, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Elections are a fantastic opportunity to ask what we stand for. Who are we? Where do we want to go from here?

The conclusion from one of the dirtiest campaigns in Irish history is that we are not in a good place. A nation divided.

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Yes, the country is booming. You can’t look skywards in Dublin without a crane blocking your view – but we’ve had that before.

The mood is not good. We suffered austerity, helped re-balance the books and even enjoyed becoming the fastest growing economy in Europe again.

But this time it’s not enough. We want things to work. What’s the point in being statistically better than Finland and Germany if you can’t afford to put your child into a crèche?

The hospital trolley crisis is like ‘The X Factor’ – getting worse but never ending.

Our housing system is more akin to ‘Faulty Towers’. Too few episodes and the building that is taking place lacks the innovation needed to help older people looking to downsize, first-time buyers or renters.

Nobody predicted that the theme of this election would become ‘change’.

Much analysis led Fine Gael to campaign on the idea that we should ‘Look Forward’. In other words, we’re getting there so let’s just keep going. Almost a quarter of people bought into it.

Perhaps in an effort to appear frugal, Fianna Fáil recycled their 2016 slogan ‘An Ireland for All’. Almost a quarter of people bought into it.

And Sinn Féin went the ‘Giving workers and families a break’. Almost a quarter of people bought into it.

None of the main pitches were particularly inspiring – but Mary Lou McDonald’s manifesto was certainly the most radical.

The party has toned down its ‘shout and moan about everything’ approach to politics since the local elections in May.

On that day out they lost almost half of their council seats and dropped to 9pc support.

Now though the Ipsos/MRBI Exit Poll for RTÉ, Irish Times, TG4 and UCD shows Sinn Fein should be the natural junior partner for the next government.

Despite being within the margin of error of potential poll toppers Fine Gael, they still won’t be the largest party in the next Dáil because nobody saw this coming, least of all themselves.

Sinn Féin only ran 42 candidates across 39 constituencies. Some of their contenders will have massive surpluses but nobody to share them with.

At 22.3pc this is a major milestone for Sinn Féin. But the question has to be asked: Were Sinn Féin a safe ‘protest vote’ because people decided they won’t actually end up in government anyway?

Regardless Ireland is no longer has a two-and-a-half party country. It is a three party state. Sinn Fein are now ‘mainstream’ and it will be very difficult for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to continue their blackout policy in the medium term.

But the mood for change can’t explain the slight move back towards Fianna Fáil, the party that effectively bankrupt us just a decade ago.

Micheal Martin led his party’s efforts from the front, amid accusations that the cavalry were a few trumpets shy of being useful.

Although Fianna Fáil are third in the Exit Poll, he is now in poll position to be the next Taoiseach – probably with a rainbow coalition involving some concoctions of the Greens, Labour, Social Democrats and Independents.

It would be the pinnacle of his career and a reward for sticking at it when all hope was lost.

The Cork TD must now know that if he can’t bring the numbers together then his days are numbered. As a result he is likely to match and outbid anything Leo Varadkar can offer.

Yet for Fianna Fáil this is a very poor result. If Fine Gael were at 22.4pc, then Martin and his troops should have walked, never mind marched, their way back into Government Buildings.

Martin is ever the pragmatist though and will be quick to point out that he has brought them from the edge of total collapse to the verge of power again.

If Eamon De Valera founded Fianna Fáil, Micheal Martin saved it from extinction.

Being Taoiseach was never supposed to be the peak of 41-year-old Leo Varadkar’s career.

The Fine Gael leader was selected by his own TDs and senators because they believed he could defeat Fianna Fáil.

The Exit Poll suggests he achieved that – but there is a strong likelihood that Fianna Fáil will take the most seats on transfers.

Nobody in Fine Gael contemplated the idea that they would be would in a dead heat with Sinn Fein.

If he was re-elected he could have continued on for five years with one eye on the next chapter - a big job in Europe.

However, Varadkar will be facing big questions in the coming days.. He didn’t connect with voters during the campaign and struggled to get his message about the economy to hit home.

On these figures, forming a new government will be incredibly difficult.

If Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil stick to their pre-election promises, the only workable solution is a new version of ‘confidence and supply’.

This election result has seen us ask many questions – but has provided very few answers.

Online Editors