The votes are counted, the seats are filled.
We still don’t have a government of course, thanks to the ongoing punch and judy show of coalition negotiations. Some immutable facts remain however, amidst the legislative hubbub:
- Fine Gael are still the biggest party in Ireland, with 50 seats.
- Fianna Fail are the second biggest, with 44
- The total number is 158, meaning they’re the only two-party coalition that has enough to consist of a majority
- Everyone else combined don’t have enough seats to forma government
- Therefore any possible coalition will have to involve one or both of them.
This has proven somewhat disheartening for the newest generation of voters, many of whom voted for the first time and saw real, tangible, progressive change through the marriage equality referendum of 2015. Was it all for naught? Why did we bother to show up if the same old names stay in power? Sure aren’t those two parties just two cheeks of the same arse anyway? Take heart. There’s more at work here than is readily apparent. For the purposes of this exploration, we’ll work off the premise that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are in fact the same party. Their initial difference of opinion was almost a century ago and at this point it’s safe to say the civil war is over and the Treaty with the UK will be staying in place, short of an ad hoc invasion some time next week. Even in the modern context, the ideological differences between the two are virtually invisible to all outside the two parties. Both are pro-life, the litmus indicator du jour for a party’s social agenda. Both are financially conservative, preferring policies of lower tax and lower spending (occasionally propped by sovereign debt). Both have had similar if not identical attitudes in government to the most vulnerable of society, preferring policies that benefit the financially secure. Their election manifestos were so close in ideology that few could actually find any material differences.
Let’s take a look at four charts, each of which showing the percentage of seats won in Irish general elections by 4 very different groups, spanning the last 50 years. I’ve chosen this time span as most of those voting in the early 60s are still voting today. Also, by the 1960s the civil war grudges were fading, De Valera was out of the Dail, and Ireland was starting to find some sort of identity as it’s own state. First, let’s take a look at the combined performance of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael as if they were in fact a single party:
So no, not much has changed since 2011. But look at that downward spiral since 1965! Our parents and grandparents seem to have been a lot more comfortable flipping and flopping between the old guard parties until the early 90s, a time when Ireland first started to demand more for itself than had gone before. Since then there has been an inexorable and undeniable support for the civil war duo, moving from a safe mid-70s percentage to just over half today.
What, then, of Labour? Surely they’ve been the ones making gains as Ireland becomes less of a political duopoly? Well, not exactly….
Labour are, as visible above, also in a gradual decline over the past five decades. It’s slightly different for the red team though, as a decent return in the next general election could reverse this. It’s also not a steady downward curve like FF/FG, and any Labour party loyalist reading this would do well to note the clear and huge loss of seats that directly follows any coalition with either of the two biggest parties. No surprise in the modern era, shouts the ghost of the PDs, but having to immediately lose ground every time they take power doesn’t bode well for a party that’s seen something around 20-25% now eroded to its lowest level in history.
So who are the big winners? Where could the left wing, republican and traditionalist votes be going?
Maybe it’s Sinn Fein?
A stunning fact that many in the Irish electorate may have forgotten : nobody in the Republic used to vote for Sinn Fein until their friends up North stopped shooting and started talking, and since then it’s been pretty good news for their prospects as legislative representatives. That said, in both the 2016 and 2011 elections there were landslide gains expected that never really materialised, with the percentage of candidates that ran under the SF banner returned still lower than they’d like. Also, with this pattern only really emerging in the last 5 election cycles, it’s hard to adequaltey assess their long-term prospects. Nonetheless, Sinn Fein have seen the second most impressive gains of any group over the past 50 years.
Second most impressive? Who are the real winners?
Simply put: absolutely everyone else. Have a look at independents and others:
Yes, supporters of new parties, there is a silver lining. From less than 5% in 1965, smaller parties (including Social Democrats, AAA/PBP, Greens, Independent Alliance, Independents and in previous years the Progressive Democrats and Renua) have moved to over 30% and from the trends above this shows no signs of slowing down. Maybe there are still too many cooks on the left side of the house to get a coalition broth together just now, but frankly it looks like the day is coming when governments can happen without either of the usual suspects being involved. Remember that the party elders of both FF and FG are aware of this, which is why you’ll spend the next few weeks listening to them pretend they have any choice other than to huddle together for conservative warmth.
The question now is one of nerve. Does the ongoing rise and rise of disparate opinion and alternative, progressive thinking continue at the ballot box, or does the Irish electorate suddenly do the 180 degree turn that Enda and Michael are praying they do? Looking at the above data, it’s clear Ireland is undergoing a political renaissance and showing no intent to move back to the old coin-toss.