Ireland’s Messy Election Becomes an Impossible Game of Who Can Count to 79

It was not supposed to be this way. When the 31st Dáil was dissolved by President Michael Higgins at the request of Enda Kenny, Fine Gael’s long-standing leader and Taoiseach since 2011, there was an assumption that the party would face a difficult but likely re-election. Fianna Fáil, after a long stretch in government, was widely discredited by the scandals of the Bertie Ahern’s ancien régime, the 2008 crash and subsequent IMF/EU bailout. Still the “Gobshites” who had brought an end to the famed Celtic Tiger, Sinn Féin - making a play for the anti-austerity, anti-politics electorate - had a hope of out-performing the once-dominant Fianna Fáil in vote share.

The Fine Gael-Labour coalition had seen a resumption of growth, which made Ireland the fastest growing economy in the European Union. FG hovered at around 30% while the two opposition parties slogged it out in the low twenties. Kenny found himself the most popular leadership candidate in Ireland. Something interesting could have been on the cards. Long the underdog of Irish politics, Fine Gael was on the verge of cementing a new more assertive position, while Sinn Féin slowly assumed opposition with FF reduced to a minor party side role. The kind of realignment that politics sees only once every century - ironically just months before the centenary of the Easter Rising: long tribal loyalties, from Ireland’s civil war, could die and Ireland’s political structures take on a more traditionally European ideological flavour.

Everything in the iron rulebook of politics said FG should be re-elected. Yet it was not to be. The iron rules are sometimes slightly malleable.

Enda Kenny has been humiliated and a leadership challenge cannot be ruled out

158 seats up for grabs: when the votes, under Ireland’s complicated single transferable vote (PR-STV), were counted Kenny’s party had lost 16 seats and 10.6%. Fianna Fáil, the election’s surprising winners, gained 23 seats on a 6.9% increase: there were less than 25,000 votes between the two parties and their combined vote share was just shy of 50% an all-time low. Sinn Féin became the third party and, although Tánaiste Joan Burton clung onto her Dublin West seat, Labour received a good old fashioned third party drubbing, falling to 7 seats and 6.6%. (Sound familiar?) Fine Gael and Labour, who once enjoyed a commanding majority, together stand well short of a majority. After a bad campaign, with Fianna Fail only six seats behind Enda Kenny has been humiliated and a leadership challenge cannot be ruled out.

So what next? When the 32nd Dáil meets on 10th March, Kenny and Micheál Martin, Fianna Fáil's leader, will both put themselves forward as candidates for Taoiseach but neither has the numbers. Neither can count to 79. Neither has a viable majority or anything close to it. Unless he somehow manages to scrabble together a parliamentary coalition for his leadership with Ireland’s 16 independents TDs, Kenny becomes a caretaker leader as negotiations for the next government really begin.

There is no way Fine Gael could work with Adams’ party; the logical (only?) way to get to 79 is by a grand coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - another sign of the end of Civil War politics? - yet the distrust runs deep. Few people remember the 1977 election better than your average Fine Gael TD; memories of that old charlatan, Charles Haughey, remain too fresh. The feeling is reciprocated. And there is the curious issue of water charges, imposed by FG and loathed by voters. Abolition was a key FF election pledge, taken by the government as yet another sign of “promise anything” tactics.

Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are in mess of the their own making. When the choice becomes "put up or shut up", I suspect both will do neither

Grand coalition would involve massive compromise on Fianna Fáil’s part, probably the sort that would knock a pretty healthy-sized nail into the ready-measured coffin they have just set aside. With Adams close on FF’s heals the politics simply does not work for Martin or his party. The opportunity for Sinn Fein would be too big to miss. Paradoxically, in these circumstances ‘victory’ - even one this sweet - does not mean government. A SF-FF minority government cannot completely be ruled out, but even Sinn Féin - the party which campaigned against tax rises, budget cuts and also wanted to reduce health service charges -  admit that they would not be able to refund water charges. Right now it might not seem like it but Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are in mess of the their own making. When the choice becomes "put up or shut up", I suspect both will do neither.

Meanwhile many in Labour acknowledge that the party has been rejected by voters as a party of government; and do they really want to further antagonise voters by remaining in formal coalition with a party which lost 10% of its vote?

The election was a judgement on the government, Enda Kenny and Fine Gael. But the only remaining, even viable, option is an improbable minority Fine Gael government. It is not a choice any party would willingly pick but they may be damned either way. After decades of broken promises to reform politics, the price would be to reform, both tactically and permanently, the government’s relationship with Oireachtas (the two legislative chambers) to bring about a less centralised way of governing. It is an option which is not going to come quickly. And while it may be desirable, the question then becomes whether the price is too great for all parties, but most of all Fine Gael. Poisoned chalice does not even come close.

Negotiations could fail, or an unstable minority government falter quickly, and another election be called. It may even be the most desrible option.  But who really knows what will happen then? And it does represent a backwards step to the days of short-lived governments which existed on a hand-to-mouth basis. Ideological realignment will have to wait. Until then the counting and the race to 79 continues.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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