Ireland’s recent general election was historic, and the ramifications will echo around the world.
The two main features of this election demonstrate an irrevocable change to the Irish political landscape; the collapse of the two centrist parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which have dominated Irish politics, and Sinn Féin’s receiving the highest popular vote.
The Irish political system is unique. It is not divided ideologically on left-right lines, and policy differences between the two big players have usually been minimal.
Fianna Fáil won just over 22% of the vote, while Fine Gael had less than 21% support. Traditionally, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would capture well over 60% of the vote between them in each election.
But this has gradually been changing. In the 2011 general election, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael together had less than 54% of the vote. In 2016, this fell to less than 50%. This time, only 43% of Irish people voted for them.
Now, as the two parties contemplate being forced to enter a grand coalition with each other, strikingly: even if the two parties enter government together, they still will not have a majority.
The other part of the story is the rise of Sinn Féin, a left-wing and nationalist party whose comrades in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) waged a 30-year armed struggle against Britain.
In 2011, they won 10% of the votes. In 2016, 14%. In last week’s election, 24.5%.
Economic and social unrest have undoubtably played a huge role in this. Though Ireland has full employment and high growth rates, the headline figures mask a darker reality. With no other major cities to serve as a counterbalance, Dublin’s sprawling growth and poor infrastructure has made it one of the most congested cities in the world.
It has also given rise to a housing crisis which has fuelled public anger and boosted Sinn Féin’s popularity. Misguided land use policies, excessive red tape and widespread Nimbyism have created a problem with dramatic social and political consequences.
Dublin is now one of the most expensive cities in the world to purchase a home. With no possibility of home ownership, the young are trapped in a rental market which has also seen stunning cost increases.
Little wonder then, that in this election Sinn Féin – with its promises of a nationwide rent freeze and a massive state-funded housing programme – was the choice of more than 30% of those aged 18-34. Once again, the lack of home ownership is driving young people towards the left.
Housing was not the only issue that Sinn Féin won votes on. At its core, Sinn Féin is virulently nationalist and anti-British. A United Ireland is their number one priority. But the party’s leaders are clever enough not to over-emphasise Irish unity at the expense of bread and butter economic issues.
In principle, they are ideologues, but in practice they are anything but. For example; while most of the Left favours carbon taxes, Sinn Féin adamantly opposes them, and won many new votes in rural areas because of this.
Sinn Féin also promised to abolish property tax and to slash tax on low earners and massively increase spending. To a desperate cohort, this is certainly attractive.
‘Social issues’ did not play a major role in this election, but they have played a major role in the decline of the old Establishment, which embraced a radical social agenda in the misguided hope of electoral gains which never materialised.
In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage in a referendum, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s leadership supporting the move enthusiastically. In 2018, the parties’ leaders wholeheartedly campaigned for abortion-on-demand.
The leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who had just a few years earlier presented themselves as being pro-life, cynically calculated that supporting abortion would endear them to a new generation of voters.
This election showed clearly that it has not.
In addition to failing to win younger and more liberal voters, both parties have alienated the votes of many socially conservative Irish people who had faithfully voted Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil for decades before being made politically homeless.
The role of a conservative political party is to cherish a nation’s historical identity and maintain its institutions, while occasionally making necessary changes to adapt to new circumstances.
Neither of Ireland’s centrist political parties are conservative. Instead of honouring the past, they traduced it, and did everything to distance themselves from their own traditional voters.
They richly deserved this collapse. Now, the two parties will struggle to put together a coalition government, along with another party such as the Greens.
If such a government is formed, it will not last long. Sinn Féin smells blood. Another election, a real possibility now, will only bring further gains for the political wing of the IRA.
Ireland may soon have a left-wing government with Sinn Féin at the helm, bringing alarming consequences for all of us.