The Irish general election of February 2020

Dermot Dix

Summary: The Irish election has produced a very strong showing for the left around issues of housing and healthcare costs/accessibility. Yet the left-of-centre Sinn Féin is not without contradictions — Editors

The Irish general election held in February 2020 has produced a fascinating result. Two centre-right parties, Fianna Fáil (FF) and Fine Gael (FG), have between them — if we are to include FG’s progenitor party Cumann na nGaedhal — dominated the polity since the inception of the state in 1922. When their results are combined after this most recent election, the two parties have slipped below 50% of the first-preference vote; Ireland uses a proportional representation voting system which allows voters to vote for a range of candidates in order of preference. Consequently, for the first time these two parties have won, together, fewer than 50% of the seats in the 160-seat Dáil, the Irish lower chamber.

The party that has made the most significant gains is the leftist party Sinn Féin (SF), the political wing of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA), which waged war from the 1960s to the 1990s against the British state over its occupation of Northern Ireland. In the 2020 election SF won the greatest number of first-preference votes and would have easily become the largest single party but for the fact that they ran what turned out to be too few candidates; their own success took them by surprise, largely owing to a poor showing in local and European elections in May 2019. SF have won 37 to FF’s 38 and FG’s 35 seats.

The other party to make considerable gains is the leftist Green Party, whose representation in the Dáil has risen from 2 to 12 seats. The Green Party’s Dáil representation (of 6 seats) had been wiped out in the general election of 2011, as voters blamed it for having entered a coalition government with FF — the ill-fated government that presided over the banking/speculation collapse of 2008 that had such disastrous effects on the Irish economy. (In the same election of 2011, FF’s number of deputies reduced so dramatically — from 77 to just 20 — that many doubted its chances of survival.) Hence the 2020 result has seen the Green Party rising phoenix-like from the proverbial ashes.

The figures cited above account for 122 of the 160 seats in the Dáil. The remaining 38 are made up as follows: the centre-left Labour Party and Social Democratic Party (the result of a recent split from Labour) have each won 6. Further to the left, the Solidarity/People Before Profit Alliance has won 5 (if one recent member, who has split from the group but who is in broad agreement with its platform, is included). The remaining 21 consist of independents, a small number (three-four) of whom identify as leftist but most of whom can be seen as rural conservatives who have strong local bases and who have adopted a clientelist approach towards that base. One of the 21 is not strictly speaking an independent, in that he had split from SF and formed a new party (Aontú) that has adopted a “pro-life” position on abortion but in other respects accords with SF’s platform. It should also be noted that, to date, Ireland has not seen the rise of a far-right party such as is seen all across Europe and in many parts of the world.

If one regards the 2020 election through the lens of left-right politics, then how do the results stack up? Broadly speaking, one could argue that an albeit significantly splintered left can claim around 70 seats out of the total of 160, considerably the largest number of leftist deputies elected in the history of the state, though only a very small minority of these deputies would self-identify as socialist. These parties and groups campaigned on a number of issues, foremost of which were: protest about continuing crises in healthcare (overcrowded Emergency departments, long waiting times for procedures) and housing (both availability and high prices/rents), and about the failure of the FG-led government to take action on climate initiatives.

The election result shows that the left parties have been successful in garnering support for their campaigns’ talking points. Subsequent to the election, these parties have argued that the electorate voted for “change”, a demand that, to the left, voters feel so strongly about that the emergence of a so-called “grand coalition” of FF and FG (an alliance that would need the support of a minimum of eight deputies from outside these parties in order to form a government) would be greeted with significant anger and disapproval. A grand coalition would be seen — by the left — as “more of the same”, with the centre-right parties clinging to power at all costs.

However, while the left parties agree to a considerable extent on public spending priorities, they diverge on the question of taxation. Broadly speaking, SF argues more for tax cuts (including abolishing the relatively new local property tax) than one would normally expect from a party on the left, which leads some — on both left and right — to accuse the party of populism. SF have also stated that they favour retaining the very low corporation tax rate of 12.5%, a position that is hard to square with a leftist viewpoint. Another critique, from the left but more particularly from the right, holds that the party is not a democratic party in the strict sense of the word. There is far less dissent and disagreement within the party over policy formation than is usual in democratic political parties; the party is accused of having a decision-making process whereby real power lies in the hands of figures in the IRA who are not publicly identified. When SF’s long-time leader stepped down in February 2018 after nearly 35 years as the party’s president, there was no leadership contest such as one usually sees taking place at such a juncture; just one succession candidate emerged and was chosen — “anointed”, in the refrain used by critics of the party. The party is accused of having been soft on IRA violence, including murder, which continued after the 1998 Belfast peace Agreement. The party, further, has received severe criticism for the closed-ranks ways in which it has responded to a number of detailed and credit-worthy accounts of sexual abuse — including abuse perpetrated against children — long tolerated within the ranks of the IRA/SF.

What is the likely shape of Ireland’s next government? Perhaps the most likely outcome is the afore-mentioned “grand coalition” comprising FF and FG, with support either from one of the smaller parties on the left or from a group of rural independents. The FF-FG combine would seem, to outsiders, a natural enough development, given that the two parties share a considerable amount ideologically and also given the numbers of deputies elected across the political spectrum. However, such a combine would be a significant step to take for the membership of both parties, whose fore-runners split from each other by taking opposing sides on the merits of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which ended the Irish War of Independence and created the southern Irish state (the fore-runners of FG supported the treaty, while those of FF opposed it on the grounds that the treaty did not go far enough in delivering full autonomy). A short civil war ensued, with the pro-treaty side victorious. As in the case of most if not all civil wars, deep bitterness has been a long-lasting legacy.

The two parties, over the course of the 20th century, developed somewhat divergent support bases. FF tended to draw support from smaller farmers and a greater proportion of the urban working classes, while FG tended to draw support from larger farmers and urban middle-class voters; but there has always remained a significant class overlap between the supporters of the two parties. There is a precedent for the two parties working together: from 2016 until 2020 FF gave support on a “confidence and supply” basis to a minority FG government, as the results of the 2016 election had also yielded an inconclusive result (but one in which FG had won 50 seats to FF’s 44). FG lost seats in the 2020 election, but FF too suffered at the polls since, in the eyes of a significant share of the electorate, it was tainted by association with the FG government’s unpopular record. This is reminiscent of the fate of the Green Party in 2011 and of the Labour Party in 2016 (when it saw its number of Dáil deputies fall from 37 to 7, as a result of having been the junior partner in an unpopular FG-led government labeled by many an “austerity” government).

FF and FG both continue to rule out doing business with SF on account of ostensible policy differences — but more particularly owing to long-voiced criticisms of the “culture” of the SF party. Parties on the left such as the leader of Solidarity/People Before Profit have called for FG and FF to respect the call for change on the part of the electorate and to allow for a SF-led minority left government to repair the damage done by years of austerity measures. After all, it is pointed out, the most recent government also ruled on a minority basis. However, FF and FG are unlikely to stomach the possibility of SF leading a government, albeit a minority one, given the alternative of the FF-FG combine, which — in a positive spin — can be presented as finally bringing an end to what is termed “civil war” politics (in other words, politics harking back almost a century rather than reflecting today’s issues and realities). The upshot of this putative alliance is that the country would see a straightforward left/right divide in its political life that has not, to date, held in Ireland.

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