Irish election update: The end of Civil War politics?

As the dust settles on the most upending Irish election result in living memory, the business of forming a working majority for government looks to be a monumental task. Can Micheál Martin find a way to make up the numbers or is another general election only a matter of time?

Reflecting on the campaign

Fine Gael’s efforts to make this general election campaign about Brexit ultimately failed, with only 1% of voters regarding Brexit as the most important election issue, according to the Ipsos MRBI exit poll.

What took many commentators by surprise, however, was the inability of Fianna Fáil to capitalise on the government’s failure to deal with the issues most important to voters – health and (especially) housing. The party’s decision not to bring down the government in the middle of Brexit negotiations, even as the housing crisis escalated and the cost overruns of the National Children’s Hospital and national broadband plan became clear, has come back to bite them.

Fundamentally, the inability of the party to establish a clear identity for itself due to the confidence and supply agreement left a clear opening for Sinn Féin to take advantage of. As home ownership for people in their late-20s and 30s became an ever more unattainable dream, the rise in popularity of an alternative offering radical change (in this case, Sinn Féin) had an air of inevitability.

Market reactions

The message of “Sinn Féin victory” has dominated the election-related media coverage over the past week both domestically and internationally. The common wisdom was that Sinn Féin would have to form some part in any possible government formation – either in coalition with Fianna Fáil or with a broad spectrum of the smaller left and centre-left parties and independents.

This message spilled over onto the markets, as investors were put off by the possibility of a three-year rent freeze or the implementation of some of Sinn Féin’s more anti-free market policies. As the extent of the Sinn Féin surge became clearer on Monday, the ISEQ index dropped by 1.4%, with the greatest losses for the Irish banks and for listed real estate investment trusts (REITs).

Coalition negotiations

Whilst Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald was quick to declare her party’s victory, their preferred coalition – a rainbow coalition of left-wing parties – looks to be unlikely. The numbers do not add up to a majority, nor could such a mishmash of different policy positions and personalities provide a stable government in any case. The controversy surrounding the leaking of a video of Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane declaring “up the Republic, up the RA” at a post-result celebration event has also made potential partners nervous, delivering a significant blow to Sinn Féin’s hopes of leading a left wing government. In the past few hours, Mary Lou McDonald has at last conceded that a purely left-wing government is “off the table”.

Prior to the election, Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin was fervent in his insistence that his party would not go into coalition with Sinn Féin. In the immediate aftermath of the results, the clearly shaken leader softened his position on the issue somewhat – the fear of being the first Fianna Fáil leader to fail to become Taoiseach probably a motivating factor.

Following an intense meeting by the parliamentary party on Thursday, however, Martin has returned to his previous hard-line position, rejecting talks with Sinn Féin which Mary Lou McDonald had offered in writing. For the time being, then, a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition is off the cards, even if this makes another election inevitable.

Another path to government for Fianna Fáil may be on the cards however, with Micheál Martin now saying that he will reach out to Fine Gael sometime in the coming days. Whether cooperation between the two parties would involve a reverse confidence and supply arrangement or a formal coalition remains unclear.

If Martin can secure the agreement of Fine Gael to abstain on his nomination as Taoiseach, he would still require an additional 25 votes to get to the crucial number of 63 (a majority of the non-Fine Gael TDs). Even the combined numbers of the three centre-left parties (The Greens, Soc Dems and Labour) come to only 24, meaning that the inclusion of some independents would likely be necessary – most probably Mattie McGrath and the Healy Rae’s grouping of rural independents. Needless to say, the stability of such a coalition would be highly questionable, with the rural independents and the Green Party especially taking diametrically opposed positions on a variety of issues.

A ‘Grand Coalition’ of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and either the Green Party or some gene pool independents would provide a potentially more stable government but would leave Sinn Féin as the sole large party of opposition. Another five years of Sinn Féin’s fervent opposition would probably see the party continue to rise. As the centenary of the state’s foundation draws near, this move would spell the end of ‘civil war’ politics as we know it, and lead to a permanent re-alignment of the party system along more conventional left-right lines. Whether Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can stomach this as a price worth paying remains unclear.

If neither of these unsavoury options can be agreed to, another general election in the coming months becomes inevitable. Sinn Féin will learn from their mistakes and will increase their number of candidates substantially and probably gaining upwards of ten seats, assuming that the electorate vote similarly. The question then becomes whether a 34th Dáil will be the first majority-left wing legislature in the Republic’s history.

Looking ahead

Fianna Fáil will appoint their negotiations team in the coming days, which will meet with Fine Gael, the Greens, Social Democrats, Labour and independents throughout next week. The new Dáil will convene next Thursday to elect a Ceann Comhairle and Taoiseach, although the later election will almost certainly remain inconclusive.

Given the tight electoral arithmetic of the new Dáil, the question of which parties put forward candidates for the role of Ceann Comhairle will give an indication of how the different parties regard their own prospects of entering a governing coalition. Former Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin has ruled himself out of contention for the role, making the question of who will preside over the Dáil an open one.

Seanad elections will also occur next week, with councillors from across the country electing 43 new senators. Sinn Féin’s rise in the Dáil will not be repeated in the upper house, as their 81 councillors will not suffice to return even the 6 senators they already have.

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