Alex Massie

Sinn Fein’s surge in the Irish election was a cry of frustration

Sinn Fein’s surge in the Irish election was a cry of frustration
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The people have spoken. Now, what do they mean? That is the first question to be asked in the wake of this Irish election and, as is so often the case, not all the answers to it are elementary and some of them are contradictory. This was both a startling election result and an unsurprising one. Few people, least of all Sinn Fein themselves, thought Mary Lou McDonald’s party would top the poll but some aspects of the result are less surprising. Overall, however, this was both an earthquake election and an inconclusive one. So much so, in fact, that the 33rd Dail may prove a short one.

Until the weekend, Fine Gael had been in power for nine years, the party’s longest run in government since it was founded in 1933. In such circumstances, a swing against Leo Varadkar’s party was always probable.

Indeed, put crudely, the story of Irish politics for decades has been that Fianna Fail break things and Fine Gael are then charged with fixing them. As and when those repairs are completed – or are considered just about done just about well enough – the pendulum swings away from Fine Gael. As a rule, the Fine Gael's style is high-handed and bordering on smug; they are not just better people than Fianna Fail, they are smarter too. If there was a party for mansplaining, Fine Gael would be it. That places some limits on the people’s tolerance for Fine Gael. The party may be necessary but it is not often loved.

Talk of 'populism' is also misplaced, at least in as much as this is taken to be the explanation for Sinn Fein’s success or considered some startling and new development in Irish politics. For 'populism', if it is to be defined in such terms, has always been a part of Irish politics. Fianna Fail, a nationalist catch-all party largely devoid of firm ideological conviction, has dominated Irish politics for more than 80 years.

Indeed Fianna Fail’s recovery from the nadir of 2011, when the party was stripped down to just 20 seats, is further evidence of the remarkable indulgence granted the Soldiers of Destiny by the Irish people. The long era of two-party politics – which was really often 2.5 party politics – may be over but Fianna Fail remains imperishable. No longer, perhaps, the natural party of government but still an indispensable one.

That being so, and because Fianna Fail has always prided itself upon its pragmatism, there seem few reasons to think an accommodation of some sort cannot be reached with Sinn Fein. True, this requires forgetting the pre-election promise that no such deal would be sought, far less agreed, but that was then and this is now a new reality.

Such promises have been disposable before. In 1989, Charlie Haughey was reminded that his party was on record ruling out any post-election coalition. His reply was characteristically imperious: 'Fianna Fail are on the record as saying they wouldn’t enter the Dail'.

Brexit, obviously, was a non-barking dog in this election and for good reason. British observers who think this election has anything very much to do with Britain are mistaking themselves. Broadly-speaking, Varadkar’s government pursued a Brexit policy that reflected a cross-party consensus. In such circumstances, little credit is awarded for pushing a policy with which everyone else agrees. Competence is not enough.

Moreover, for all that Fine Gael have been charged with repairing matters since the great crash of 2008, the cost of the job has necessarily been high. Worse than that, however, is the sense some past errors are being repeated in the hope that this time everything will work out for the best. In housing, for example, the bubble is getting even bubblier.

For the young in particular, that created a powerful incentive to vote for an alternative. These were votes cast out of frustration, not with conviction. Here too there are echoes of the past, notably Labour’s 'Spring Tide' in 1992 which was also once seen as the beginning of the demise of the old FF-FG duopoly. Sinn Fein’s rise is more dramatic than that and so perhaps a greater threat to Irish politics’ old form. But it is also just as much a symptom of a more fragmented polity as it is the cause of a new realignment of Irish politics.

And if this is a triumph of the left then it remains one in which the parties of the left seem unlikely to win much more than around 35 per cent of the Dail’s 160 seats. Had Sinn Fein run more candidates then matters might be different. But their failure to do so reflects the extent to which this Shinner surge has taken even them by surprise.

Still, there is little denying that this is an election result demanding change. Though, as ever, the precise meaning of 'change' is neither clear nor obvious. Moreover, if, as seems likely, no government can be formed without Fianna Fail then the opportunity for 'change' of the kind apparently demanded by the electorate is liable to prove more elusive than the election’s headline results might indicate necessary.

A period in opposition will suit Fine Gael, I suspect. Their job is done for now. Meanwhile, I very much doubt that Sinn Fein’s performance reflects significant enthusiasm for Sinn Fein’s policies so much as it is evidence of a vague but deeply and widely shared belief some things must change. How that happens is less important, right now, than it happening at all. Even so, this election result suggests that aspects of the 'Irish model' are no longer considered fit for purpose.

The shadow cast by 2008 is still present and this election is a reminder of that. Ireland may have come through the crisis but not without cost. Many of the things that were ignored during the happy boom years have still, perforce, been left unaddressed through this decade-long attempt at recovery. If this election has a single over-riding message, it is that those issues – almost all of them domestic in nature – cannot be avoided forever.