Irish election update: The Final Countdown – Can the Centre Ground Hold?

As we close the third and final week of the election, one might think it has concluded with more of a sizzle than a bang, with all parties visibly exhausted by the short but intense campaign. 

With six major debates, media attacks, and unprecedented poll fluctuations, it is understandable. As we await the outcome of the final, decisive poll, it is worth taking a look back at the concluding week of the campaign. 

All eyes on Sinn Féin 

In its role of “speaking truth to power”, it was to be expected that the media would look to hold Sinn Féin to account as they rose to become the most popular party in the state, according to recent opinion polls. 

Nonetheless, the attacks of the past week have been particularly intense, from the more obviously partisan commentary of Eoghan Harris and former Fine Gael Minister Ivan Yates on Newstalk, to the more subtle agenda setting role of RTÉ’s Brian Dobson in his interview with Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald. 

Whilst the issue of the 2007 murder of Paul Quinn and comments made by Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy came to dominate the headlines for the final 24 hours prior to the media moratorium, it is fair to say that any one of countless historical controversies could have played a similar role if given the airtime. Despite personnel changes in the Sinn Féin leadership since the 2016 General Election, the party cannot so easily escape from its past, or avoid these issues being intermittently raised. 

Whether these attacks will influence Sinn Féin’s support tomorrow remains uncertain. After all, with only 3% support among the over-65’s according to even Sinn Féin’s own Survation poll (the age group most effected by the Troubles), their prospects among this age cohort can hardly be expected to get any lower. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin’s strongest support base in those under the age of 45 have shown little interest in changing their vote based on historical controversies. These age cohorts are also much less likely to be influenced by traditional media sources and instead being influenced by social media – a platform which Sinn Féin dominates. 

Is there such a thing as too many debates?

Interest in the election debates peeked on Tuesday, when over 650,000 people tuned in to watch the leaders of the three largest parties go head-to-head. This included over 83,000 younger people (interestingly, more than were watching Love Island at the time), indicating a growing interest and engagement in politics among the millennial generation. 

Whilst Mary Lou McDonald did not give her strongest performance on the night, spending most of the debate on the defensive from the other two leaders and tough questioning from Miriam O’Callaghan, reactions on social media were still strongly supportive, suggesting that for many young people opting to watch the debate over Love Island, Mary Lou McDonald was the primary attraction. 

Interest in the debates tapered off quickly, however, with Thursday night’s dual offering of minor party leaders on RTÉ and major party deputy leaders on Virgin Media One attracting much less attention. The similarity of many of the smaller centre-left parties on most of the issues produced a dull affair, with few stand out moments. Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin repeated his explicit request that Labour voters transfer their votes to the Green Party and the Social Democrats. The Soc Dems’ Roisín Shorthall likewise urged their voters to transfer to other progressive parties who want change. All five parties clearly agreed that voters should take the opportunity to break the mould of the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael duopoly. 

Meanwhile, as the hours ticked down towards the media moratorium Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney, Fianna Fáil’s Dara Calleary and Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty did battle in the more informal setting of the Tonight Show studio with Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates. Both Simon Coveney and Pearse Doherty gave sharp and impressive performances, whilst Dara Calleary perched at the end of the table was unengaging. His lack of recognition to those less engaged with politics did not serve him well and highlights one weakness of the Fianna Fáil offering – namely, the question of the “depth of their squad” beyond Micheál Martin. Nonetheless, given the late hour and limited audience of the broadcast, it is unlikely to make much difference. 

The Brexit backfire 

To observers outside Ireland (especially in the UK), the failure of Fine Gael under Leo Varadkar to utterly dominate this election campaign has been perplexing. After all, with a strong economy and following Varadkar’s exceptional performance in securing a Brexit deal, shouldn’t the Irish electorate be more grateful?  

This is what Fine Gael were banking on as they called the election three weeks ago. Given the poor response of the electorate to Fine Gael’s 2016 campaign slogan “Keep the recovery going”, this does call to mind Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results

Brexit did raise its head one final time this week thanks to an off-the-cuff comment by Micheál Martin in a political podcast. He claimed that Fine Gael had “overplayed” their role in Brexit negotiations, and specifically mentioned how little European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee actually did during the process. Fine Gael were quick to refute these claims and even called on the services of Donald Tusk to support the work McEntee did on Brexit and to back up her credentials. However, the best response came from McEntee herself when she tweeted:

“The last thing he and his party negotiated with the EU was Ireland’s IMF bailout after they wrecked the economy”. 

The make-up of the 33rd Dáil 

Despite Sinn Féin’s lead in the polls, it now looks certain that Fianna Fáil will lead in seat numbers for the 33rd Dáil, with around 55 seats give or take. For the purpose of coalition formation, whether Fianna Fáil achieve slightly more or slightly fewer will be critical. 

 If Fianna Fáil can win in the high 50s, this should position them well to form a government with their preferred coalition partners – the centre-left parties like the Greens, Labour and (if necessary) the Social Democrats. With many of the predicted independent TDs to be elected coming from the Fianna Fáil ‘gene pool’ such as the Healy Raes and Mattie McGrath, this could be enough to get them to 80 seats. 

If Fianna Fáil achieve in the low 50s (or if they are very unlucky with transfers, just below 50), this option will not be possible, and Fianna Fáil will be faced with an unenviable choice between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. 

 Micheál Martin has ‘ruled out’ cooperation with Sinn Féin so many times that it would be almost unimaginable that he would be willing to lead a cabinet including Sinn Féin. Given the relative scarcity of candidates to replace Martin (coming back to Fianna Fáil’s lack of depth again), this route is questionable. 

And so, by process of elimination, a result for Fianna Fáil slightly below our prediction will likely lead to the cooperation of the two civil war parties for a further Dáil term,  through a renewed confidence and supply agreement. This result will likely see the continued rise in support for Sinn Féin as the only ‘real alternative’, especially for as long as the present housing and health crises persist. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are aware of this but have few other options. 

As has so commonly been the case for the past few politically tumultuous years, W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ best captures the mood of the moment – can the centre hold?

Get in Touch

Colm O'Dwyer

Account Executive

Aisling Cusack

Account Manager