Ireland election: Sinn Fein emerges as most popular party

10 February 2020, 08:10

Sinn Fein received 24.5% of the vote share, Fianna Fail got 22.2% and Fine Gael 20.9%.
Sinn Fein received 24.5% of the vote share, Fianna Fail got 22.2% and Fine Gael 20.9%. Picture: PA

By Asher McShane

Sinn Fein has emerged as the most popular party in Ireland in a historic General Election.

However, the shape of Ireland's next government remains uncertain with counting ongoing through Monday

While final results remain a way off, it is clear Ireland now has three big players on its political stage.

Sinn Fein has secured the most first preference votes and topping the polls in the vast majority of constituencies across the state.

The party received 24.5% of the vote share, Fianna Fail got 22.2% and Fine Gael 20.9%.

Despite that, Fianna Fail remains best placed to secure the most seats, primarily due to Sinn Fein's failure to field enough candidates to capitalise on its unexpected surge at the polls.

Of the three, Fine Gael looks like being the big loser, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's party set to ship several seats.

None of the three will come close to securing enough seats to achieve a majority in the Dail parliament, so thoughts have already turned to the potential make up of a coalition administration.

Smaller parties such as the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats and Solidarity/People Before Profit, and a sizeable number of independent TDs, may all be courted as the main parties seek junior coalition partners.

On Sunday, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin declined the opportunity to repeat his pre-election pledge never to do business with Sinn Fein.

Though he later cautioned observers not to "jump the gun" in interpreting his remarks as a signal an alliance with the party was in the offing.

Mr Varadkar was more unequivocal in his response, making clear his party's stance on not dealing with Sinn Fein was unchanged.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said she was willing to talk to all political leaders but expressed a desire to lead a coalition made up of left-leaning parties, without any input from Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, which are both centre-right in outlook.

While it remains unclear whether it will ultimately be part of any future coalition, Sinn Fein's performance has undoubtedly sent shockwaves through Ireland's political establishment.

The party has been left to rue its decision to run significantly fewer candidates than its two main rivals, 42 compared to Fianna Fail's 84 and Fine Gael's 82.

That will see a significant number of Sinn Fein surplus votes being transferred to other parties in the proportional representation contest.

It is a shakedown that could benefit Sinn Fein indirectly, if its surpluses boost the numbers of potential left wing partners in government.

At his count centre in Cork on Sunday, Mr Martin would not rule out working with Sinn Fein or Fine Gael, having definitively refused to countenance either as coalition partners during the campaign.

The Fianna Fail leader, who acknowledged his party looked like being on course to win the most seats, was repeatedly pressed to restate his opposition to a potential Sinn Fein partnership.

While insisting there were "significant incompatibility" issues in terms of policy, he did not dismiss the suggestion outright.

But he added: "Our policies, our positions and principles haven't changed overnight or in 24 hours."

In a result emblematic of the Sinn Fein surge, the first seat declared in the election was the party's Donnchadh O Laoghaire, who topped the poll in Cork South Central ahead of Mr Martin.

Mr Varadkar was also outpolled by a Sinn Fein candidate in Dublin West, Paul Donnelly, with the Taoiseach only getting over the line after the fifth round of counting.

The Fine Gael leader, whose party is predicting a seat total in the "mid to high 30s" having entered the campaign with 47, said he would not be speaking to Mrs McDonald with a view to forming a coalition.

"My view on this is exactly what I have said during the campaign and what I said during the campaign and what my party said during the campaign wasn't a tactic or a strategy, it was what we honestly believed and for us coalition with Sinn Fein is not an option," he said.

If parties do ultimately stick to their pre-election pledges then it would be extremely difficult for any of the three to form a stable government.

On Sunday, Mrs McDonald branded talk of excluding her party as "undemocratic".

She said she had been in touch with the Greens, Social Democrats and People Before Profit to discuss the prospect of them joining her party in government.

"It's been an election about change," she said.

"The extraordinary thing is that it seems that the political establishment, and by that I mean Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, are in a state of denial.

"They are still not listening to what the people have said.

"I want us to have a government for the people. I want us to have ideally a government with no Fianna Fail or Fine Gael in it.

"I have started the contact with other parties to explore over the next days whether that is a possibility."

Asked if the result marked a revolution in Irish politics, Mrs McDonald replied: "Yes, you could call it that for sure."

The uncertainty created by the results has even thrown up the possibility of another General Election.

There are 160 seats in the Dail parliament.

The speaker is automatically re-elected, leaving 159 seats up for grabs and 80 the magic number for a majority.

Mr Varadkar's last government, a minority Fine Gael-led administration that included several independent TDs, was sustained in power through a historic confidence and supply arrangement with Fianna Fail.

That landmark pact between two parties founded from opposing sides of Ireland's civil war of the 1920s took 70 days to negotiate following the inconclusive 2016 general election.

A new confidence and supply deal cannot be ruled out, potentially a reverse of the last one, with Fine Gael supporting a Fianna Fail-led minority.

The fractured vote could even force Ireland's two traditional political superpowers to contemplate the once unthinkable, a grand coalition in government together.

Brexit did not feature prominently in an election campaign which was instead dominated by domestic issues like spiralling rental prices, record-breaking homeless numbers, controversy over the state pension age and a struggling health service.