When the exit poll dropped on the evening of Saturday 8th February, a tremor could be felt – but an earthquake came when the final results were confirmed on the morning of Tuesday 11th February. The left-wing nationalist Sinn Féin party came top in the 2020 Irish general election with 24.5% of the vote. Even more symbolically, it broke the duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two centre-right parties that have defined Irish politics and consistently been in government since the 1930s.
These unprecedented results leave a highly fragmented and unpredictable political landscape in Ireland. The only certainty is that the Irish people voted for change.
What happens now?
With Sinn Féin gathering 24.5% of first preference votes, Fianna Fáil 22.2% and Fine Gael 20.9%, the top three parties won roughly the same number of seats – 37*, 37 and 35 respectively – in the Dáil, the Irish equivalent of the House of Commons. Outgoing Taoiseach – or Prime Minister – Leo Varadkar has led a minority Fine Gael government over the past three years with the support of Fianna Fáil in a confidence and supply agreement. Now that the two parties’ combined share no longer reaches the 80 seats needed for a majority in the Dáil, that option has become impossible.
The talks to form a coalition have now started and promise to be tough. Following the results, Leo Varadkar reaffirmed that Fine Gael would refuse to enter a coalition with Sinn Féin; Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who had said the same before the election, seemed open to the idea more recently. A left-leaning coalition of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, along with the support of a smaller party such as the Greens, has been touted as a possible outcome of the talks. In this scenario, with an exact tie in the number of seats between the two leading parties, the question of who becomes Taoiseach would be the subject of intense negotiations. However, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald’s declaration that she ”may well be the next Taoiseach” suggests she may also attempt to form a left-wing coalition on her own – in which case the parliamentary arithmetic would prove much more complex.
Only one scenario could lead to a government not involving Sinn Féin: Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil forming a coalition, or at least striking a confidence and supply deal, along with the support of the Green party, Labour, or the Social Democrats. However, given the two parties’ longstanding rivalry and joint loss of votes in the election, this option might be harder to realise than it appears initially.
If all else fails, another election would be on the cards. This might not prove to be an effective solution, as there is little indication that the results would be any different – and most figures in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael ranks are afraid they would be even more favourable to Sinn Féin. For now, we should brace ourselves for potential months of coalition talks.
Many have attributed Sinn Féin’s stunning victory to its campaign on public health and housing, two policy issues that were ignored under Leo Varadkar’s Brexit-focused leadership. The party’s focus on domestic issues has made it top every single age demographic group below the age of 65, according to exit poll statistics. Despite this, the consequences of Sinn Féin’s surge will be most heavily felt on the front of Brexit and Irish reunification.
British commentator Andrew Neil might have judged Leo Varadkar’s campaign to be “anti-British”, but Sinn Féin’s anti-British stance has a longer history. As a historic supporter of Irish independence and unity, one of the party’s key pledges is the organisation of a “border poll” – or, in other words, an island-wide referendum on the reunification of Ireland, currently split between the Republic in the South and the UK country of Northern Ireland in the North. The reigniting of the reunification issue has already prompted Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster to react by rejecting the idea.
If it forms part of the next Irish government, Sinn Féin will certainly be using the issue of reunification as a lever in the post-Brexit negotiations with the UK. This is bad news for the British government, as Brexit has already started pushing Northern Ireland towards reunification: an opinion poll released in September 2019 revealed that in a hypothetical border poll, 51% of people would vote to leave the UK and join the Republic of Ireland, against only 49% voting to remain.
The EU watches and waits, uneasy
The EU is famously uncomfortable taking positions when it comes to regional separatist movements in Europe. It refused to wade into the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, and has been unable – or unwilling – to intervene in the recent conflict in Catalonia. Even as the UK leaves the EU, the Union is unlikely to help a potential Sinn Féin government push for reunification given how delicate the issue is with its Member States.
However, the EU has pledged its unconditional support to Ireland in representing the Republic’s interests in the Brexit negotiations with the UK. An even harder position in the trade talks might be the price to pay for the EU to avoid having to intervene in the Northern Irish issue.
In terms of internal EU matters, a government led by or involving Sinn Féin would be a win for the GUE/NGL parliamentary group – Sinn Féin’s affiliate at the European level. It would also shift the European balance a little more to the left at the Council of the EU, where Ireland has historically been a reliable ally of liberal countries in advocating for free trade, low taxes and low regulation. However, that might not entirely go against the European Commission’s plans: Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, despite hailing herself from a liberal party, made a name for herself in the 2014-2019 mandate when she took on Dublin-based companies Apple and Google. Now in charge of an even larger portfolio including the EU’s digital transition and part of its industrial strategy, she might find an unlikely ally in left-wing Sinn Féin at the European level.
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*Fianna Fáil’s seat count does not include the speaker’s seat, as he does not vote or take part in debates.