This has been a seismic and groundbreaking election that has changed the face of Irish politics, writes
In 2011 we saw the humbling of Fianna Fáil; 2016 rearranged the relationship between the two main parties; but 2020 has introduced a radical new element into government formation, with the stunning performance of Sinn Féin that has shattered forever the duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
There were so many eye-popping moments yesterday; Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin both unseated as poll-toppers by Sinn Féin; that party’s Johnny Guirke, previously unknown outside his own constituency, topping the poll in Meath West; another Sinn Féin candidate, Louis O’Hara, aged 22, coming from nowhere to poll 7,000 votes in Galway East in an election that could see his party gain a dozen seats when the prediction had been that they would barely hold their own. Another astonishing result in Wexford where Johnny Mythen, who polled just 800 votes and lost his Enniscorthy council seat last year, swept into the Dáil with over 18,000 votes across the county.
Where did this political tsunami come from?
First and foremost to an electorate hungry for change, Sinn Féin looked different, Mary Lou a splash of colour in the leaders’ debates. The casual garb of frontbenchers such as David Cullinane and Eoin Ó Broin told voters, particularly the under 30s “we’re one of you — and we’re certainly not Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil”. And of course those parties, and large elements of the media, played into the hands of Sinn Féin by depicting Mary Lou and her party as political untouchables.
By claiming that they would not do business with Ms McDonald, Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin were kicking sand in the faces of the tens of thousands who had already decided to choose Sinn Féin, allowing the party to cast itself as victimised and excluded, the row over the final RTÉ debate playing strongly into that narrative.
Few could disagree with the Sinn Féin leader when she said yesterday that it would be fundamentally undemocratic for a party that had taken a quarter of the vote to be treated in this way.
MOREOVER, it is clear now that confidence and supply was a disaster for Fianna Fáil, voters identifying the arrangement as motivated by the two big parties looking after each other, rather than putting the country first.
Housing was a major plank in the Sinn Féin platform. With a massive 38% of younger voters polled citing housing as the biggest issue, Mr Ó Broin can claim huge credit for his party’s performance.
He had taken the trouble to write a book on the crisis in the sector and how it might be managed, an early acknowledgement perhaps that Sinn Féin needed to be proactive in setting out positive solutions and pivoting away from perennial protest. It meant that he was treated as a hybrid in panel discussions, half expert, half politician, and was seen to own the issue on the airwaves, giving his party a crucial advantage in a critical debate.
Under Ms McDonald, this was the first election that saw Sinn Féin presenting itself as a potential party of government rather than protest, and the shift has paid off handsomely, with voters prepared to give them the benefit of what must have been some very considerable doubts, in the case of Fine Gael supporters who made the jump.
The results show too that voters will judge the party on its present and what it offers for the future rather than its past links with the IRA campaign. Put simply, younger voters don’t care about Sinn Féin’s recent history, and see it as a rational alternative to the traditional parties.
For some that poses a significant moral dilemma, but numbers have no morality, and Mr Martin has already begun to soften his tone towards the party.
Sinn Féin will first have to explore an alliance with other left-leaning groups, but the political logic and arithmetic points to government with Fianna Fáil.
That will, in the end, pose bigger problems for Ms McDonald than Mr Martin.
Her party made huge promises to the electorate and some of those would have to be unpicked if she was to enter government.
A wealth tax, a high- income levy, and a €700 million hit on multinationals are all measures underwriting Sinn Fein’s €22bn spending plan that would see cuts in the USC, an end to property charges, and a return to 65 for the pension age.
In any talks with Mr Martin, many of those pledges would be under pressure, and some would have to be ditched, but the Sinn Féin leader was careful throughout the campaign not to draw any red lines, even when pressed on the core issue of a unity referendum. But even without a border poll, Sinn Féin in government north and south would be presented as a hugely significant staging post on the road to a united Ireland. Any negotiations will be difficult, and could be lengthy, but for Ms McDonald and the party she leads, the prize is well nigh irresistible.