Fraser Nelson Fraser Nelson

The Sinn Fein surge has stunned Varadkar – and transformed Irish politics

You know the story. A Prime Minister takes a tough line on Brexit talks and holds a snap election thinking voters will be impressed – instead, they don’t care and it ends in disaster. It happened to Theresa May in 2017 and it just has happened to Leo Varadkar. The votes are still being counted, but it’s clear that no party has a majority, or anything close to a majority and that Varadkar’s gamble failed. Support for his Fine Gael has plunged and a stunning Sinn Fein surge has changed everything.

It’s not just that Sinn Fein won most of the first preference votes. For decades, Irish politics has been divided between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Now, the big two are a big three – which means none of them are near power. It’s new territory for Ireland. Varadkar has made history by becoming the first Taoiseach to be be denied first place in his own constituency, beaten by a Sinn Fein candidate. Under the Irish system, between three and five representatives are returned for each seat – so Varadkar is back in parliament. But as what? He is now talking being “part of” a new government but will only stay as party leader “if my party will have me.”

Irish voters just weren’t interested in Brexit. They were not wooed by Varadkar’s strong-and-stable economic record either. Most voters, he admitted to RTE radio, “took the view that the economy would look after itself and that the Brexit talks would look after itself.” And they were his two trump cards. Earlier on, I heard his Fine Gael colleague Neil Richmond grumble that this “was not the Brexit election that some had expected.” You can say that again. The exit poll (below) showed Brexit was the main issue for a princely 1 per cent of voters: health, housing and pensions were the top three concerns.

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