With the United Kingdom grabbing all the headlines in Europe over the past week or so, it has almost slipped under the radar that its neighbour to the west is having a general election this Saturday. The minority government run by centre-right party Fine Gael eventually run out of friends in the Dáil, narrowly surviving a vote of no confidence before Taoiseach Leo Varadkar dissolved the Dáil in the middle of last month.
Fine Gael has traditionally been one of two major parties in the Republic of Ireland, the other being centrist Fianna Fáil. In every single Irish general election since 1922, one of those two parties has come out on top and formed the government, and on 14th January when the Dáil was dissolved it seemed that this election would be going down a similar line. The first TV debate on Virgin One was only between Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, for example.
However, polls released last Thursday, Sunday, and last night have thrown a cat amongst those particular pigeons. Sinn Féin, leftist nationalists, drew level with Fianna Fáil to tie for first place on Thursday, and then last Saturday pulled out a narrow two point lead which they had maintained according to last night’s poll.
Sinn Féin are a famous name in Irish politics, being the catalyst for Irish independence following their landslide victory in Ireland in the 1918 United Kingdom general election. They are still a major player in Northern Ireland, forming part of the power-sharing devolved government in Stormont, and consistently winning seats in Westminster while abstaining from them.
In the most cautious part of my brain there is a flashing neon sign that reads “Cleggmania”
In the Republic of Ireland, though, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s dominance had consigned Sinn Féin to the sidelines. Between the 1961 and 1997 elections they didn’t win a single seat in the Dáil, and as recently as the 2007 they only won four seats. They currently have 22, out of a 160 seat Dáil, although may be expecting to have a few more than that come this weekend.
Could a century-long political duopoly be about to fall before our eyes, then? With polling so tight it’s far from a done deal, and in the most cautious part of my political brain there is a neon sign with the word “Cleggmania” flashing brightly.
For those who don’t know, “Cleggmania” is the phenomenon where during the 2010 U.K. general election the country fell in love with the leader of the century-long third party, the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg, with him leading a number of polls before leading his party to a distant third place and less seats than they’d won in the previous election in 2005.
There are very good reasons that this might not be a rerun of “Cleggmania”, however. First of all, the Irish elections are conducted using a proportional system, which can reduce a voter’s will to vote for the ‘lesser of evils’ in their constituency. Secondly, Sinn Féin are offering a true alternative to the two major parties, whereas the Liberal Democrats a decade ago positioned themselves bang in the middle of the pair. In Ireland such positioning is not possible, and is not Sinn Féin’s remit.
The other parties’ response to Sinn Féin has been absurd, amateurish, and ineffective
What is making a difference in this particular election is Sinn Féin’s ability to break through on real everyday issues. The surging cost of living in Ireland is what is driving people to search for an alternative to establishment politics, and Sinn Féin have ideas to fix it; reducing rent costs, building 100,000 houses, empowering the Central Bank to cap mortgage interest rates, and abolishing the property tax.
In addition to that, the other parties’ response to Sinn Féin in this election has been absurd, amateurish, and ineffective. While Sinn Féin have been talking about issues that matter to the average voter, the establishment parties have been attempting to convince people that Sinn Féin wouldn’t know how to govern, and bringing up things like abortion that no one really cares about (even in Ireland) any more.
Fine Gael put out a video of its leading figures promising to never enter government with Sinn Féin, which at this rate may not even be an option they’re afforded. Don’t get me wrong, the election of Leo Varadkar was a step forward for equality, and he seems like a genuine person who cares about Ireland, and a skilled representative of the country on the international stage. His handling of Brexit, for example, has been close to exemplary.
As a political campaigner, however, he has dropped the ball. His party are polling in third place with four days to go until the election, and I genuinely believe he has run out of ideas for how to fix it.
Sinn Féin are talking about the issues people care about
Fianna Fáil aren’t doing too much better as we stand. Micheál Martin got made mincemeat of in the last debate, and their response to recent polling was to send an unhinged TD by the name of Jack Chambers onto RTÉ last night to look stupid in front of the whole nation, shouting down the show’s host and coming across about as warmly as a fridge.
In contrast, Mary Lou McDonald is looking ever more the stateswoman. Confident on debate stages and on the campaign trail, and potentially a Taoiseach in waiting. This is the first difference to point out to anyone looking at this situation and thinking about the disaster that the British left suffered last year. McDonald’s charisma and ability to get her message across to people dwarfs that of Jeremy Corbyn.
Additionally, the weight of important issues is falling on Sinn Féin’s side. Sinn Féin are talking about the things ordinary people care about, and they’re speaking their language. To paraphrase a tweet I saw, Fine Gael are betting on people hating Sinn Féin without stopping to think that they might hate not being able to afford rent more. Traditional left-right politics and common stigmas matter little to the ordinary voter after a certain point, and if sensible solutions to common problems are being offered.
Finally, and most pertinently, the Irish people politically are fundamentally different from the British people, in their world views and in their politics. It’s a fact that many seem to frequently forget, including some of the top brass in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil by the looks of it. Irish politics is nothing like British politics, hence why those attempting to judge and influence this election using British means and measures may find themselves like fish out of water.
The momentum is with Sinn Féin
Of course, with polling numbers so close at the moment it is difficult to say what may happen on Saturday and what the Irish government will look like going forward. Sinn Féin will be looking to smaller left-of-centre parties for coalition support in the almost certain event of no party gaining an overall majority. In that regard the numbers to look out for on Saturday night will be those of the Labour Party, Solidarity-PBP, Independents 4 Change, the Social Democrats, and the Green Party.
We could be about to see a seismic shift in Irish politics this weekend. Of course, polling might not be completely accurate either way, but one thing can be said with certainty at this moment: the momentum is with Sinn Féin.