In the new post-modern Ireland of marriage equality and repeal, governing has become toxic, writes Gary Murphy
As Ireland has liberalised socially, our last three elections have been fought over the crash and the post-crash. How to manage the economy and how to improve the everyday quality of life of people have been the key electoral questions of the last decade.
Being in government — while the responsible thing to do for Labour in 2011 — has all but killed it off. It has sent Fine Gael spinning into serious decline.
The party of the coping classes and sound money has lost 15% of its vote and 45 seats since its triumph at the 2011 general election. On Saturday it barely broke 20% of the vote.
Fianna Fáil, in the invidious position of supporting confidence and supply over the last four years, has suffered from being perceived as part of the governing consensus. It has just had the second-worst election in its history. Fianna Fáil assumed after 2016 — where the party made gains after the meltdown of 2011 — that its upwards trajectory would continue at this election.
Speculation by some pundits that the party would win more than 60 seats and easily form a centre-left coalition with the Greens, Labour, and the Social Democrats were disabused by first the anodyne campaign, then the exit poll, and finished off by the early tallies.
As various seats it had expected to win drained away and it struggled to break the 40-seat barrier, the recriminations about the leadership of Micheál Martin and its supporting role in confidence and supply began.
Fianna Fáil is mired on 22% of the vote. It clearly hasn’t been forgiven by large numbers of citizens for its role in the crash. Micheál Martin couldn’t persuade people that he was the change leader in this election.
He was at his weakest in the campaign when stating that there was a global economic slowdown of which Ireland was but a part. This led to various broadcasters reminding him that Ireland was one of just three European countries which needed a troika bailout. The bailout still clearly scars a significant number of people in the State.
Martin may have done the state some significant service by ensuring that there was some sort of stable government over the last four years, but politically they have proved ruinous for his party.
Hindsight is easy, but it would surely have been better for Martin to have pulled out of government at some stage over the last 12 months. He has been steadfast in his view that Brexit was such an important issue to the country that it would have been the height of political irresponsibility to pull down the government, but, as Fine Gael themselves know only too well, Brexit just hasn’t resonated with the voters.
The evidence was in Saturday’s Ipsos MRBI exit poll, when only 1% of voters said it was the most important decision in deciding their vote. And Brexit of course did not stop the British from having two general elections since in 2017 and 2019.
It is surely one of the great ironies of the shared relationship between Britain and Ireland that the British blithely went along with their electoral business after Brexit, while the Irish were fatally hamstrung by it.
Ultimately, Brexit became the great excuse to do nothing in Irish politics. House building was moribund. There was no appreciable improvements to the health service. The national broadband plan and the building of the children’s hospital became synonymous with sclerosis.
Because of the Brexit conundrum, there seemed no issue on which Fianna Fáil would not pull down the government.
Into this vacuum stepped Sinn Féin and its cadre of candidates, many of them barely known within their own constituency. It has long been thought that candidate recognition is the crucial variable in Irish politics.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael dominated the electoral landscape for close to a century because they had the temperature of their local constituencies through their workers on the ground and recognisable candidates in the constituency.
The economic crash changed all that.
Fianna Fáil thought that local factors and candidate recognition would save it in large numbers of seats in 2011. They didn’t. Less than a decade later, local issues and candidate recognition are even less important.
The Sinn Féin surge on Saturday was based overwhelmingly on the mantra of change. It has had huge first-count successes with candidates who would be unknown to many of those who voted for them, and they are not casting their ballots on local issues.
We know from the exit poll they are voting on national issues, mainly housing and health.
These are issues which of course resonate with voters in their constituencies but the consistency of the Sinn Féin vote across the state shows their relevance across the country.
Party loyalty was completely sundered by the crash and membership of political parties is at an all-time low.
But, as political parties are the vehicles by which we mostly elect our politicians, they are crucial to how candidates present themselves to the electorate.
And in this election where the idea of change dominated the campaign having the Sinn Féin brand next to one’s name was the surest way to get elected.
For the first time since Sinn Féin abandoned their policy of abstentionism and started contesting elections in the Republic, they offered a plausible explanation for being in government.
The campaign Mary Lou McDonald ran effectively demanding to be in government to get things done in the key areas of health and housing.
Sinn Féin is the current beneficiary of this large mood swing in the electorate.
It has primarily benefitted from the fact that, unlike Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Labour, it has never had to make any difficult choices in government. In that context, it has had no one to disappoint.
It is hard to imagine that it is only eight months ago that the party was stagnating after its local and European election results saw it drop below 10% of the vote. Today it bemoans the fact that it did not run enough candidates to capitalise on the electorate’s mood for change.
But the modern Irish electorate is fickle and is demanding change. It has rejected Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
It wants Sinn Féin in government in some form. If that is where the party ends up, it will for the first time be faced with difficult choices.
Public disappointment almost inevitably awaits.
For now, the Irish party system which first fragmented nine years ago has been well and truly smashed by voters.
- Gary Murphy is professor of politics at Dublin City University.