The electorate has, or at least a very significant proportion of it, again shown it has a greater appetite for change, a greater appreciation of the urgent need to reorder fundamentals than too many politicians. How that demand manifests itself, as the last seats of election 2020 — the first one at least — remain in play, has become the only question of any real importance.
Though the surge to Sinn Féin, many years in the making, has been correctly described as seismic how the old, almost imperial, shibboleths respond may be even more so. Should they finally end a century of contrived differences, based more on outdated social affectations than political philosophies, then that might trump Sinn Féin’s undeniable achievements. A coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, one, to borrow a phrase, based on parity of esteem would be belated recognition that all is changed forever. Such a departure, one representing around half of the electorate, would also reflect what is happening and delivering stability in many European countries. It would, and in time this may the most significant argument, embrace the reality that ever-more fragmented politics neutralise once-large parties unwilling to compromise so they might remain relevant. If, however, such a marriage led to continuity rather than real change it would be pointless. That Darwinian truth — change or die — applies.
Fianna Fáil has, unwisely, shown how chained to its past it is by setting its face against a coalition of the centre irrespective of what the alternative might be. Both FF and FG have promised not to join any government with SF so, unless something changes — a Trevor Sargent style change in leadership in one party or another maybe — then the kind of difficulties that recently delayed government formation in Belgium and Spain loom. Stormont’s mothballing offers lessons too on what rigidity brings — and how tactically resolving that impasse raped votes and changed perceptions too.
It is far too early to see clearly what might lie ahead but it is worth considering some of the priorities detailed in exit polls. Health and housing were dominant. The losses imposed on FG were a response to the scandalous housing crisis. They vindicate the warning offered long ago by Peter McVerry that FG are ideologically incapable of resolving the crisis. Should that inflexibility, that lack of imagination be repeated over coming weeks then that party will make itself even more
irrelevant by being — again — deaf to the needs of the day. Those exit polls also recorded a startling indifference to Brexit and climate change, those pressing issues barely featured in considerations. This is more than difficult to understand.
The success of SF, and the Greens too, are the early standouts. Despite that the results seem to underline that anger and discontent, both justified to one degree or another, have replaced old-style tribalism. They also suggest elections have moved on and now select those who might engage in talks about forming a government rather than those who might immediately form a government. Whether our political culture has, in restricted circumstances the grace and capacity to achieve that is still an open question. Though more than 60% of us voted the substantial decisions still lie ahead.