Feargal Cochrane


‘I may well be the next Taoiseach, yes. This matter of fact observation by Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald after Saturday’s General Election in Ireland would have seemed outlandish to many just hours before.


While the result has produced a three-way score draw in terms of the arithmatic, the political calculation is an easy one. Sinn Fein won the election by a distance while the two ‘main’ parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, lost it.


So two pertinent questions present themselves. Firstly, what happened? And secondly, what does it mean for Ireland and for Britain?


The first is easier to answer. Sinn Fein presented itself as the party of change and the Irish voters bought into their positive message of hope. The result was a thumping of the governing consensus and worn out economic neo-liberalism, combined with a belief that Sinn Fein could deliver in key areas of economic policy.


The results were dramatic with Sinn Fein topping the poll with 24.5% of first preference votes in Ireland’s proportional representation system. Fianna Fail came in second with 22% and the governing Fine Gael party trailed in third with 21%. When converted into seats in the Irish Parliament, Fianna Fail have 38 Seats, Sinn Fein 37 and Fine Gael 35. The Green Party had their best result, returning 12 TDs while Labour was trounced, securing only 6 seats.


Prior to the election, Fianna Fail had been expected to emerge as the largest party by a distance and form a stable coalition government –but they underperformed in the campaign as did their leader Micheál Martin. They were also damaged by propping up the governing Fine Gael administration via a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, which made them complicit in the unpopular record of government.  


Since Saturday’s election there has been some shrill ‘commentary’ to the effect that the result represents a descent into Irish nationalist populism of the Brexit Britain and Trump variety. But as Brigid Laffan has pointed out, the most important issues for voters were health and housing –with only 1% citing Brexit as a priority. Sinn Fein fought the election on economic change –not on an Irish nationalist platform. Better housing, addressing the homelessness epidemic and the chronic state of the health service. While their core vote remains a republican one, their high water mark in this election is down to their message of progressive economic change.


A well-known republican slogan much used by Sinn Fein during The Troubles was Tiocfaidh ár lá, which translates as ‘Our Day Will Come’.


Perhaps it finally has? But Mary Lou McDonald is a canny politician, like her predecessor–careful not to box herself in to policy positions that she can’t get out of or cannot sell to the party faithful. So while she now talks about reunification and the need for a Border Poll –she also stresses the need for a process of preparation for constitutional change on the island and for orderly transition, without attaching a time scale to it.


So what does the result mean for the rest of us? There are several possibilities. A government of national unity with the three big parties –but that is unlikely given the gulf in policy priorities and Fine Gael have all but ruled it out. A Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail coalition is a reasonable prospect and FF have been tiptoeing away from their pre-election position that they would not go into government with Sinn Fein due to the party’s connections to militant Irish republicanism.


It is now a matter of policy incompatibility, rather than principle. Sinn Fein will try to cobble together a government without either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail –but they will struggle to get close to the necessary 80 seats. FG and FF could form a coalition together –but thwarting the public desire for change is likely to backfire so spectacularly at the next election they are unlikely to go for it. And of course there could be another election if the parties are unable to reach agreement.


It remains to be seen what Sinn Fein will do with their victory and if they can convert it into sustained success. Dublin City University’s Professor Gary Murphy has some salutary advice about the challenges of governing when parties are benchmarked not on their promises –but on their capacity to deliver them. ‘Being in government –while the responsible thing to do for Labour in 2011 –has all but killed it off. It has sent Fine Gael spinning into serious decline.’


If they do go into government and manage to overcome the challenges of office, they will have changed the political face of Ireland on both parts of the island. Political reunification will become a central political issue for both parts of Ireland as well as the UK –and Britain’s attempts to negotiate a comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union will not get any easier either. DUP leader Arlene Foster has rightly said that it was up to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State to determine if there was a prima facie case of support to trigger a border poll on Irish reunification –and so far, there is not.


However, the DUP will not need reminding that the UK said it would never impose a customs border in the Irish Sea after Brexit. It has now done what it said it would never do and who knows if it would be prepared to trigger a border poll as the price for Sinn Fein support of a trade deal with the EU?


When Mary Lou McDonald took over from Gerry Adams as President of Sinn Fein in 2018, she signed off her acceptance speech in Dublin’s RDS with a crowd pleasing: ‘Up the Rebels - Tiocfaidh ár lá’. However, if she moves the party from insurgent to ascendant –she might have to change the tense -to ‘Our day has come’. What she does next is likely to affect all of us.


Professor Feargal Cochrane is the Vice Chair of the Political Studies Association and a Professor of International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent. Image credit: CC by Sinn Fein/Flickr.