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The breakthrough in Irish politics

March 09, 2020
tags:#Ireland, #election, #democracy
by:Peadar O'Cearnaigh
On 8 February 2020 the southern Irish electorate went to the polls and voted for change. The result broke the established two-party system of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. But rather than accept this the establishment is in denial.

Despite the fact that FF and FG are centre-right parties, they have been bitter rivals since the foundation of the southern Irish state. Their founding members took opposing sides in the Irish civil war, which immediately followed independence from the UK in 1922. And since that time the south of Ireland has had either a FF or FG (or its direct predecessor) led government.

But this pattern was smashed in the 2020 general election when Sinn Féin (SF) won almost 25% of all first preference votes. There were breakthroughs also for the Green Party (GP) and the Social Democrats (SD). It means, for the first time in the southern state’s almost 100-year existence, that a left-wing dominant government is possible.

Irish elections

SF only put forward 42 candidates in the 2020 election. And because Ireland has a proportional representation with a single transferable vote (PR-STV) system, it could have won even more had it put forward more candidates. So relative to the number of candidates put forward, it was a landslide victory for SF.

The 2016 election showed that for the first time ever neither FF nor FG were large enough to form a single party government nor lead a stable coalition. At least not without the support of its old enemy. So, FG returned to power as a minority government with support from some independents. But with the majority of its support coming from FF through a confidence and supply arrangement.

Establishment opposition to SF

So in the 2020 election both establishment parties fared worse. FF lost seven seats in its second worst election performance ever, while FG lost 15 in its fourth worst election. Yet both are still adamant about not sharing power with SF in the south. The irony of insisting SF share power in the north of Ireland with British unionists hasn’t yet dawned.

Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) and leader of FG Leo Varadkar said SF wasn’t a “normal political party”. Varadkar claims SF’s elected officials consult with its national executive before making decisions. Some of the members of this executive had been members of the IRA in the past. Leader of FF Micheál Martin claims the IRA is still active and in control of SF.

But the IRA is a long time defunct and disbanded. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was signed in April 1998 which marked the end of the conflict in Ireland between the IRA and British forces. Furthermore, in 2008 the International Monitoring Commission found the IRA had disbanded its structures and its campaign was “well and truly over”. Irish politics has very much changed.

The Irish electorate seemed uninterested in the establishment’s assertions. The conflict in the north took place and finished long before their time. SF scored very well among 18-24 year old voters who were concerned with more pertinent issues like health, housing and homelessness.

Election issues

On paper the Irish economy has recovered since the financial crash of 2009. Ireland was hit hard during the years 2009 to 2013. Today it’s close to full employment and its economy is growing. Despite this growth there is a continued crisis in the health sector, young people find it increasingly more difficult to own their own home and the homelessness crisis appears to be worsening. It was these issues, not a historic conflict, that influenced Irish voters.

SF promises changes on all three. It proposes abolishing the Universal Social Charge (USC), a tax introduced in late 2010 on all gross incomes over €4,004. It was to boost the then ailing state coffers. Today workers must pay it on all gross income over €13,000. SF want to increase this to €30,000. SF also propose abolishing property tax, which Irish people pay on their own homes, and to increase paid maternity leave from 26 to 52 weeks. It also proposes returning the age of retirement from 67 to 65 while allowing people to continue working afterwards should they choose to do so.


There is an on-going health crisis in Ireland that sees patients sleeping on trolleys, crowded accident and emergency departments and long waiting lists. GP care in Ireland costs around €60 per visit. It appears as if no government can resolve it. SF propose offering free GP care and increasing the number of hospital beds.

Housing and Homelessness

The homelessness crisis in Ireland sees 10,271 people homeless in an economy of almost 5 million people. SF promises to cap interest rates on mortgages, reduce rents and build an extra 100,000 homes. These policies resonated with Irish voters.

Since the vote

Almost one month on (5 March 2010) and a government still hasn’t been formed. The possibility of another election looms. In that time SF have sought to consolidate its electoral popularity through holding public meetings across Ireland. And it appears to be working. A recent opinion poll shows SF has increased its popularity by 10 percentage points. And it is now 15% ahead of FF. So the current stalemate appears to be in its favour which bears well for the formation of a left-wing dominant government

A political breath of fresh air for world politics?

The Brexit referendum and Trump election victory in 2016 was a very worrying slide to the far right. But there have been some recent positive signs in Europe as both Spain and Portugal show left-wing alternatives are possible. And now Ireland.

And it’s welcome news ahead of the US elections this November. Because the world can no longer tolerate the continuation of sexist, racist and homophobic views on such a public platform which allows a culture of acceptance to prevail. Those views must never be normalised in any way.

And while it’s early days and Ireland is but a small democracy, these are signs of change. It shows there is a credible and inclusive alternative for ordinary people. It’s just the establishment that hasn’t woke up to that yet.

Article written by:
Peadar O’Cearnaigh
Embed from Getty Images
The 2016 election showed that for the first time ever neither FF nor FG were large enough to form a single party government nor lead a stable coalition.
Embed from Getty Images
In the 2020 election both establishment parties fared worse.
Embed from Getty Images
And while it’s early days and Ireland is but a small democracy, these are signs of change.
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