Dolan O'Hagan: What Sinn Fein do next will dictate whether #GE2020 truly is an historic turning point

Election 2020 has cemented in many eyes Sinn Fein's position as a political force for change north and south of the border but history would suggest the decisions it makes in the next six weeks will dictate whether it maintains that position in the decades ahead, suggests Dolan O'Hagan.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with her supporters after being elected at the RDS Count centre today. Pic: PA
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with her supporters after being elected at the RDS Count centre today. Pic: PA

Sinn Fein Tsunami. Ireland's Political Earthquake. A Vote For Change.

These are just some of the front page headlines here and in the UK which marked the surge in electoral support enjoyed by Sinn Fein in last Saturday's election.

A surge which saw the party capture the nation's highest first preference vote (24%) and which - when the ballots were counted - translated to 37 of 160 Dail seats.

Election 2020 Results Summary

Seats by party

  • Party
  • % 1st Pref
  • Seats
  • FF 22.18% 38
  • SF 24.53% 37
  • FG 20.86% 35
  • IO 15.39% 21
  • GP 7.13% 12
  • LAB 4.38% 6
  • SD 2.90% 6
  • SPBP 2.63% 5
160 of 160 seats filled
39 of 39 constituencies complete

The upshot of all the late nights at count centres up and down the country in recent days, however, is that despite the numbers now being clear the broader picture remains anything but.

Political discourse is now dominated - and will be for some time - by the possibility of government formation and the shape of possible coalitions within any such administration.

Sinn Fein - who for the first time in their history have an MP or TD in every one of Ireland's 32 counties - have made it clear they are now ready and willing to govern and will enter talks with anyone who is willing to participate in the delivery of an agreed programme of government which meets their electoral pledges.

No less than party heavy weight, Pearse Doherty, has been nominated to lead those coalition talks and negotiations.

Plenty will be said (and unsaid) in the next six weeks but the nub for Mr Doherty and his negotiation team will lie in whether Sinn Fein and its enlarged parliamentary party believe any possible coalition will allow them to deliver on their electoral pledges around housing, health, childcare and a fairer deal for working families.

No doubt a consideration of history will also inform the outcome of these talks.

Many, both inside and outside the party, have already pointed to the warnings of recent history and the fate of Dick's Spring resurgent Labour Party who after their own 'Spring Tide' in 1992 - which saw them win 33 seats - went into coalition with FF.

Fast forward 30 years and Labour - founded by James Connolly - are now effectively in the political wilderness with just six Dail seats.

Others who share Sinn Fein's broader left wing ideology and who are celebrating what appears to be a growing support base - particularly among the young - for that ideology, might also point Mr Doherty to his fello legendary Donegal socialist, Peader O'Donnell's seminal account of the 1920's land struggle, 'There Will Be Another Day'.

Poll topper Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire of Sinn Féin is shouldered in celebration at the Cork South Central Count Centre at Nemo Rangers GAA Club in Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Poll topper Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire of Sinn Féin is shouldered in celebration at the Cork South Central Count Centre at Nemo Rangers GAA Club in Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

In a highly enjoyable autobiographical account, written in 1962, of his own role in the mass movement against land taxes imposed by the British Government in the 1920s, O'Donnell laments the missed opportunity - in the years following the Irish Revolutionary period - to achieve a true 'social revolution' in Ireland.

In short O'Donnell argues that despite the end of British rule, the Irish political, business and religious elites who emerged to fill the vacuum and assume power in subsequent years (and who enthusiastically embraced conservatism and market driven ideology) did little to put in place the radical social programme which was required to improve the lives and conditions of Ireland's 'working classes'.

O'Donnell's life was devoted to highlighting what he saw as that grievous wrong and culminated in the 1960's in a prediction that the Irish people would one day recognise this wrong and seize 'Another Day' to address it.

Many - particularly those on the left of the political spectrum - will believe that Saturday's surge in support for Sinn Fein was the birth of that awakening.

Others, within and outside the party, may even argue that the new born should now be nurtured towards another election when more candidates and an agreed pre electoral pact with other left leaning parties could secure the majority required to truly achieve the sort of 'social revolution' that O'Donnell spoke of.

Amidst all this speculation, controversy has erupted over a video showing poll topping Waterford TD, David Cullinane, addressing supporters and shouting 'Up the Republic, up the Ra, and Tiocfaidh ár lá'.

It was misguided and unhelpful but perhaps when the Sinn Fein parliamentary party meet in the weeks ahead to discuss possible coalition partners it may be Cullinane himself who stands up and suggests this isn't really a case of 'Tiocfaidh ár lá' or even 'Tháinig ár lá', but rather 'There Will Be Another Day'.

* Dolan O'Hagan is Irish Examiner executive editor.

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