Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with supporters after topping the poll in Dublin central
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with supporters
after topping the poll in Dublin central

Ireland’s election results have created a major political crisis in the Republic. As the final seats were filled last night, it became clear that large numbers of voters have rejected the Neoliberal austerity politics of the former ruling parties.

Fine Gael (FG) and Fianna Fáil (FF), the two old conservative rivals are both in disarray. But the shift has been towards the centre, as of yet. The fragmented Left remains organisationally diverse and thus, somewhat weak. But perhaps, they’re beginning to realise what their effective potential might be if they were able to construct a strong credible united alternative.

The two de facto coalition partners (euphemistically called a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement) Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil both lost seats, while a new and revitalised Sinn Féin topped the poll, and were elected on the first count in many constituencies. When Leo Varadkar went to the country, one seat was vacant and the speaker or “Ceann Comhairle” is automatically returned. So 158 of 160 deputies faced public assessment. The judgement was harsh with some government ministers losing seats, and many FG and FF candidates scraping in for the last count without reaching the quota.

Proportional representation

Ireland uses the proportional representation (PR) system with a transferable vote. If a constituency has four seats, a quarter of the votes cast +1 becomes the quota for election. On the voting slip, candidates are listed alphabetically and the voter places a 1 beside their first choice, a 2 beside their next and so on till they complete their preferences. The vote is transferred proportionally after each count with the lowest being eliminated, their vote then transferred until someone is elected.

Counting votes has become something of a blood sport, and this time, tallying the “Count” showed a growing number of “Plumpers” – persons who vote for just one, or a handful of similar candidates rather than voting all down the ticket. This indicates the emergence of a growing class consciousness across all age categories.

The first shudder of a seismic shift has produced a numerical conundrum for the 33rd Dail. A stable majority requires 80 votes (the Ceann Comhairle usually uses only a casting vote). Deserting the last administration, voters gave Sinn Féin an impressive 37 seats. But had they run a second candidate in many constituencies – they could have gained, perhaps a dozen more! A quarter of all voters gave them a number 1 (or first preference).

A numbers game

FG were trounced retaining only 35 seats. FF took 38 seats, and even with that low number, became the largest party in the new house. The transfer-friendly Green Party took 12 seats – their biggest ever tally, and the centre-right Labour Party was reduced to 6. Social Democrats (founded by some left ex-Labourites) took 6; Solidarity/People Before Profit won 5; and 21 independents were elected, including maybe 6 of a left-leaning disposition.

Sinn Féin (37) today espouses socially and economically progressive policies and regards itself as a left party, with the Social Democrats (+6) they could muster 43 seats. Add to that Solidarity PBP (+5) which has strong socialist policy proposals, and that makes 48. And if Labour’s 6 this time refused to support the Neoliberal FF & FG, choosing a progressive stance, that would make 54. The Irish Green’s (+12) were previously part of one of the more reactionary old coalitions, but if they too decided to back a Progressive Platform this time, it would be 66 strong.

Support from about a half dozen left and centre left independents would bring this to 72, but this grouping would still remain 6 votes shy of the magic 80 minimum majority. Perhaps some of the middle of the road independents might join a progressive collective and see Mary Lou McDonald become the first Sinn Féin Taoiseach.

On the right, FF (38) plus FG (+35) leaves the conservative parties still 7 seats short also. However, there are also a half dozen right and far right independents who would naturally support the Neoliberal outlook. If the Greens (+12) were to support them once again, they could produce a comfortable coalition of 85 seats. But the old civil war rivals may not yet be ready to hang together as full coalition partners. Behind the scenes discussions have already begun, and some of the posters have been taken down rather carefully – perhaps for possible re-use in the shorter term.

Once, a tragedy; twice, a comedy

To misquote Winston Churchill, election 2020 may only be the ‘beginning of the beginning’ towards progressive government in Ireland, and there’s every chance that another election may be on the cards shortly. For the first time, however, a left/right polarity is emerging. Fine Gael, the political tradition which connived with Churchill and others to negate the revolutionary 1919 First Dail and establish the so called “Irish Free State” in 1922, has been reduced to a 35 seat rump and is the weakest of the three larger parties. Fianna Fáil lost seats also! Sinn Féin made significant gains, and are unquestionably the winners of this bout. The Greens gained too. But there are deeper implications.

We can be confident that the old parliamentary administrative mechanism which has imposed class rule for a century is now breaking up. For the first time ever, the broad Irish left, fragmented and theoretically diverse as it may presently be – and as of yet, far from ready to form a credible strong socially and economically progressive platform, has at least, made an entry into the consciousness of a new generation of Irish workers which is now looking for real change.

If the FF/FG conservative cliques are forced back into a new Neoliberal coalition, perhaps with the Greens or some Independents in tow, the stage will be set for a crisis ridden and fractious government as renewed Austerity is inevitably imposed.

A very old spell has been broken, a new kind of politics is likely to move onto new streets in coming months as the global economic crisis deepens and post-Brexit conditions take hold. More than likely, the next election will come rather sooner than later, and will be characterised by an even sharper move towards conscious class confrontation. We may be in for an exciting few weeks on the Emerald Isle.