So that’s it, bar the odd recount or legal challenge. The general election of 2016 is over. Until the next general election of 2016 (likely, unlikely?). The clear winners, in descending order of merit, are Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Anti-Austerity Alliance–People Before Profit, the Green Party (splurgh!) and a mixed batch of independents. The clear losers, in descending order of importance, are Fine Gael, Labour and Renua. The middling performers are the semi-new groupings of the SocDems and Independents4Change.
The centre-right Fianna Fáil has made a considerable improvement from its worse ever general election performance back in 2011 to its second worse ever general election performance in 2016. Notwithstanding that caveat, the party has rocketed from twenty-one seats in Dáil Éireann to forty-three, thus ensuring the continued leadership of Michaél Martin which pre-election polling had brought into question. It is now on near-parity with historic arch-rival for the ideological centre-right, Fine Gael, though still well away from the days when it was the default party of government in Ireland. It is clear from initial analyses of the ballots that many former FF voters who decamped to FG five years ago did so temporarily, a transitory punishment for the mismanagement and corruption which characterized the coalition administration of FF and the Green Party from 2007 to 2011 (with participation or input at various stages from the now defunct Progressive Democrats, a right-wing FF splinter, and various independents, notably one Michael Lowry TD). With unhappiness at the over-zealous austerity policies of the FG-Lab government remaining widespread many people clearly decided to return to a party making a greater show of “recognising their pain”, however incongruously given its contribution to creating that pain in the first place (as others have pointed out, the Irish seem to have a serious case of the battered partner syndrome. The same reason, perhaps, why so many in Ireland seek approval of the British by seeking to be sorta-kinda British in their own sure an’ begorrah way).
Early indicators of a potential FF recovery were obvious in the local elections of 2014 when the grouping took 267 seats on 25% of the vote, an increase of forty-nine councillors. With 24% of the general election vote and forty-three TDanna Fianna Fáil is maneuvering itself into position to lead either a rainbow coalition of its own or to support one led by Fine Gael in some as yet to be decided arrangement. All that said, like Fine Gael, it very much remains a party of rural Ireland (perhaps more so) and of older, middle-aged men from generational families of political careerists. And like Fine Gael it very much remains wedded to the same policies that led to the rise and fall of the socially disastrous Celtic Tiger economy of the late 1990s and early 2000s. So expect more of the same.
In contrast centre-left Sinn Féin has recorded its best ever performance in a Dáil election (excluding the revolutionary years of 1918 and so on, of course). It has gone from fourteen seats on 9.9% of the popular vote to twenty-two seats on 14%. Unfortunately the latter percentage left it far short of any significant constituency “bonus” or “bounce” (through the management of votes in the PR-STV system) that benefited FF and saved many imperilled FG deputies. However it continues the slow trend of rising popularity since its 1.2% share of the vote way back in 1989, and is a testament to Gerry Adams’ long-term leadership strategy of embedding the party in the national body politic outside of its regional power base in the north-east.
Again, a foreshadowing of this could be seen in the local elections of 2014 where SF took 159 seats on 15% of the vote, a staggering increase of 105 councillors. At the time most press observers attributed Sinn Fein’s success to votes “loaned” to it by disgruntled supporters of Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party. However defying the expected wisdom of the experts the majority of those votes did not return to their former political homes in this month’s general election, particularly among those who formerly favoured Labour. Instead having made the jump to SF many voters decided to stay there come ballot day. It should be noted that it was not all smiles for Sinn Féin as the party narrowly missed out on at least five more seats, largely through internal vote mismanagement or failing to win the required transfers. Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Trevor Ó Clochartaigh were two unnecessary losses. Another 6% of first preference votes and the party would be returning thirty or more deputies to An Dáil.
While SF is almost certainly out of the government reckoning this time around any “power-sharing” agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, however nominal, can only be to its benefit. The recent electoral history of the north and the eclipsing of the SDLP following its time in Stormont office with the UUP in the early 2000s certainly gives proof of that. As much as SF vice-president, Mary Lou McDonald, may express public dismay at the prospects of a grand coalition between FG and FF one suspects that such a situation would be more a case of all her Christmases coming at once. Finally, despite the best efforts of the conservative press (and others) to undermine or flatten the potential Sinn Féin vote, particularly the orchestrated campaign by the publications of the Independent News & Media, the party has registered a marked increase in support across the country, notably among the under-thirty-five category of voters and in the province of Leinster. After the last three weeks of election campaigning it is clear that the greatest threat to the orderly functioning of our pluralist democracy lies within the Talbot Street headquarters of the Irish “Fox News”, an entity part-subsidised by a controversy-ridden billionaire businessman.
Of the other winners, the socialist AAA-PBP have had a good election and will be an invaluable left-wing voice in the Oireachtas, as will some other liberal-minded independents (I would exclude from that ill-defined category the high number of former FG and FF associates claiming the title of “Independent”). The local elections two years ago also proved to be a trial run for the two components of the AAA-PBP pact, both recording a modest increase in their vote and the number of councillors elected (combined it was a 3% share giving them twenty-eight seats). In the general election they have gained 4% of the national vote with five TDanna returned. Unfortunately at the moment it does not look like the party will have the requisite number of deputies to be granted full speaking rights in the Dáil chamber unless they can form a so-called “Technical Group” with the likes of the Soc-Dems and Independents4Change. One sour note is the early signs of what some old school Marxist types in the country still insist on calling “sectarianism”, with some off-key remarks about fellow progressives in other parties and none (are the rumours really true that some AAA/Socialist Party canvassers urged potential voters not to transfer to Sinn Féin, even to the point of suggesting that they give secondary preferences to Labour candidates?). Of course they are rivals for electoral support but if left-wing politicians can’t see the benefits of even temporary unity at a time of unprecedented opportunity such as this what hope is there? On a personal note can I say how glad I was to see Clare Daly deservedly re-elected in Fingal.
The politically promiscuous Greens are back. Yes, it has now become the protest party of dissatisfied Fine Gael voters in the affluent suburbs of south county Dublin thanks to the high profile granted to it by the pollsters and a sympathetic press. However at least they recognise it for what it is – a bunch of eco-Tories completely lacking in remorse for their time in office and the ruination they delivered on our island nation. God save us…
So to the losers. In the local government elections of 2014 Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael dropped to 24% of the vote and 235 councillors, a loss of 105 seats. In the general election they have plummeted to 25% of the national vote and forty-seven TDanna, losing some nineteen deputies and any chance of an easy return to government (the looses seem to have been heaviest in rural constituencies, with several TDanna in Dublin holding onto their seats in the more salubrious districts of the capital). The reasons for this have been indicated above, primarily the public belief that the party, and its coalition partner, was only too ready to deal financial pain to others while shielding itself and its cronies from the hardships it judged Seán and Síle Citizen must necessarily undergo to keep the EU, ECB, IMF and the international commodity markets happy. The same criteria applied to the Labour Party, which abandoned all of the promises and core principles it so loudly proclaimed in the previous general election of 2011 once it achieved high office. Both groupings have become, particularly as the polls of the last twenty-four months showed trouble ahead, synonymous with patronage and sub-criminal corruption, nominating friends and colleagues to taxpayer-funded positions of questionable merit or need. Clearly the controversial party leader, Joan Burton, saw the writing on the wall when Labour recorded a new low of a 7% vote in the local elections with just fifty-one seats, a loss of eighty-one councillors. Large pay increases for “special advisers” and appointments to semi-state boards quickly followed. Now many of those same people may only have their life-time government pensions to solace them. Consequently there is little doubt that that FG transfers saved Labour’s skin or the party would be reduced to two or three TDanna instead of six on a 6% vote share (a loss of twenty-seven deputies). As things stand it has certainly lost some of its vote to Sinn Féin, including a number of Fianna Fáil voters who were using Labour as a stepping-stone to SF since 2011.
The right-wing Fine Gael splinter, Renua, has now ceased to exist as a party in the Oireachtas, its leader and conservative media darling, Lucinda Creighton, losing her own seat in dramatic fashion. My dislike for the party is obvious so I’ll say nothing more… Ah feck it, why the hell not?! Clearly the belief that there exists a far right, libertarian niche in Irish politics crying out to be filled has been dealt a death blow. Since the passing of the late, unlamented Progressive Democrats the ultra-conservative titles of the Independent News & Media group have been campaigning to get more right-wing nutters into power and like their campaign against Sinn Féin it has singularly and spectacularly failed. Don’t worry though. Like several former PD politicians I fully expect Lucinda Creighton to turn up as a regular newspaper columnist for the Sunday Independent. Gotta keep the profile up for the next election, dontcha know?
So where next in the post-election re-alignments? As we wait for the final recounts it remains to be seen. As of now, all bets are off.
A typical Irish voter trying to decide the difference between a government led by Fine Gael or one led by Fianna Fáil