Reading Irish newspapers in the week after the Irish general election on 26 February every commentator seemed to suggest that the results showed a victory for his or her own point of view. The results were surprising. Many of us had expected that the Fine Gael/Labour government would fall short of being returned, but that it would come close enough to form some sort of minority government with independent support.
The short election campaign was a disaster for the two governing parties. Fine Gael started it with about 30 per cent support in polls. There was an assumption some support would return to the party as voters considered government formation. Labour, which had been below nine per cent for the year before the election hoped too that it would be seen as a centring ballast in the government and might also pick up some support.
Fine Gael’s campaign got off to a bad start as it had to admit that it had miscalculated the degree of freedom it had to spend money in the period up to 2020 – the at once ubiquitous ‘fiscal space’. In a campaign that focused heavily on the leader, Fine Gael’s, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, failed to impress, though he was never likely to. It did mean however that Fianna Fáil benefited as its leader was a better debater and more plausible candidate for Taoiseach. Labour’s voice got lost in the campaign. It tied itself to Fine Gael to such an extent that it appeared to the right of Fianna Fáil on some issues. An effort to emphasise issues such as abortion rights failed to gain traction with sufficient numbers of voters to save it.
*Anti-Austerity Alliance/ People Before Profit campaigned as the United Left Alliance in 2011.
** Others include Renua, Direct Democracy Ireland, Fís Nua and Independents4Change.
Fine Gael’s slide was documented by opinion polls, but in part because polls had been wrong in the UK, many doubted them or assumed that Fine Gael would spring back. It ended 10 points down on its 2011 result. Labour failed to move in polls, and the final result delivered its worst seat share in the party’s electoral history. Worse for Labour was that many of the remaining TDs (MPs) are older – just two are under 50, and both have significant drawbacks.
The main beneficiary was Fianna Fáil, which though it showed only a seven point rise in support, more than doubled its seats. The other parties on the left failed to make significant breakthroughs. The new Social Democrats – a party very much in the centre left – had a good campaign but suffered from not having had a network of established candidates in target constituencies. It returned the three TDs it had in the outgoing Dáil (parliament). The Trotskyite left returned more TDs, but some of these were returned as independents because of splits among them. Their support grew more on the basis of individual political activists working on the ground than a party organisation or attachment to a party.
Sinn Féin, which is a leftwing nationalist party (though many on the hard left question their commitment to left politics) had a disappointing campaign. It gained four points, but the result was lower than its support in both the European and local elections in 2014. Following seven years of austerity and as the by far largest leftwing party in opposition it might have expected to make a breakthrough. The focus on the leaders did not help as Gerry Adams was particularly vulnerable to getting confused when debating policy detail. Nor does it help that people over 40 tend to associate the party with the campaign of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland and Britain. Both these problems are soluble. Time and a new leader will help.
Despite the Labour performance there was certainly no rejection of the centre left in policy terms. Fianna Fáil deliberately positioned itself there, criticising the incumbent government for delivering a two-tier recovery. Exit polls showed that a plurality of voters preferred an emphasis on spending on public services over tax cuts.
How the future shape of the Irish party system might develop will depend on the choices for government made in the coming weeks. Because no party ‘won’ the election, and because parties can clearly see that being government tends to damage parties most, smaller parties – especially Sinn Féin and the Trotskyites – are rejecting outright the possibility of forming or supporting any sort of government (though in truth few in the centre would want to deal with them either). It will, however, make forming a government difficult. Most likely is that we see a short-lived minority government, with another election within 16 months. Whether such an election would produce a more clear-cut outcome could depend on how the parties perform in the coming months.