The news late Monday night that Sinn Fein were now polling ahead of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail has made this election one of the most unpredictable in the state’s history, with so much more to play for then there was at the beginning of the campaign. It is simply put that if those polling numbers are replicated on election day, then not only will a huge number of Sinn Fein candidates be elected, and at the expense of the two largest parties (currently!), but the surplus transfers to other left-leaning candidates could result in a seismic shift in the balance of power. Sunday is going to be a fascinating day, even if the exclusion of Tipperary (a really bad requirement in Irish law if we’re all being honest) has messed things up considerably.
It’s been an at times bitter and fraught campaign. How have I seen things going for the Oireachtas parties? In order of current seat numbers:
For Fine Gael, the campaign thus far can only be considered a disaster. The preliminaries were dominated by the stunning own-goal of the RIC commemorations, the start was dominated by callousness displayed towards the homeless, and since then Leo Varadkar has been doing well just to keep his head above water. He’s looked reserved in debates, and both he and his party too often appear to have surrendered initiative and momentum to their two biggest rivals. Throw in some unforced errors, like Catherine Noone’s idiocy, Phil Hogan’s intervention and too many unappealing candidates, and Fine Gael are in a bad spot. Any party facing into an election after nine years in power is going to be looking at an uphill battle, but Varadkar has made it steeper than it had to be. Right now, they’ll be doing well to stem the bleeding.
This was supposed to be a crowning moment for Fianna Fail, to be elected as the biggest party in the country once more, and for Michael Martin, the presumptive Taoiseach of the 33rd Dail. But while they have not had the car crash campaign that Fine Gael have had, they have still been unimpressive. Whether it is because they themselves have hit a plateau or because not enough people are following the party message, Fianna Fail seem unable to advance. They aren’t aided by Martin’s not great showing in debates, where he has too easily become tetchy, snappy and overly-argumentative. They have spent so much time throwing shade in the direction of Fine Gael that they have failed to adequately consider the threat from the left, and when trying to move their fire in that direction, they come off as arrogant and condescending. Too many people still have not forgotten 2007-2011.
For Sinn Fein, there must always be a degree of caution. The polling day numbers might slip from the polls, some of their candidates really should be no-hopers if looking at individual constituencies, and they actually haven’t ran enough in some cases. But there have never been better placed to score a big victory. Mary Lou McDonald has led the party into being seen as a real alternative to the centre, with clear messages and passionate debate performances. In a time where the electorate may well be tired of the Fine Gael/Fianna Fail cycle, Sinn Fein stand best to benefit, and may benefit hugely. Their campaign has been impressive thus far, a combination of their own actions and the own-goals of the opposition. All they really need to do is to continue what they are doing.
This was meant to be the first clear national step in the recovery of Labour, but it appears more likely than ever that they will actually take a step backward and lose seats. Howlin has had a dreadful campaign, seeming quiet, subservient and unimpressive throughout, and these may well be his last days in the leadership position. Where Sinn Fein have grabbed every advantage going, Labour have looked sonambulant, as if they were so confident of hitting ten or more seats that they didn’t really need to try that hard. This could well be an election where they get overtaken by others on the centre-left, or even hard-left, and that level of irrelevancy will be hard to bounce back from.
Solidarity-People Before Profit are really in an uncertain position. Campaign wise I think that they have done just fine, with Boyd Barrett and Coppinger very good in debates. But on the face of it they still look like slipping, falling victim to both the rise of Sinn Fein and their own internal divisions (Paul Murphy has to be a goner). Yet, if Sinn Fein were to have those big surpluses to give out, they could yet have a successful day on Saturday, being the natural #2. Whether that means they will be willing to talk about going into government is another thing entirety: a recurring problem is the groups stubborn insistence on stringent red lines, which is not what I think much of the electorate wants to hear.
The momentum of the Greens has certainly stalled. At the start of the campaign we were all predicating big things, but now it seems less certain. They will undoubtedly gain seats, but perhaps not as many as some expected. While Ryan has been fine and they have mostly managed to stay on point with their environmental message, there is a sense of a house divided in the Greens now, and of their thunder being stolen by Sinn Fein to a certain extent. But I suppose the goal of the Greens is not to win a tonne of FPV, but to be super transfer friendly, and in that the non-aggressive, centerist approach they have taken in the campaign may well bear fruit.
I said at the start of the campaign that this really was make-or-break for the Social Democrats, and I would double-down on that sentiment. The opportunity to take a seat in Dublin Central has been added to by strong polling in the north of the capital and in Galway, and with transfers from a top-heavy Sinn Fein, the Soc Dems could stand to benefit as much as any other left party. Both Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shortall have been good on campaign, and have, much like the Greens, managed to present themselves as a feasible and attractive avenue for preferences down the line. I’m more confident than ever that they stand to make gains, and on a very good day they could overtake Labour.
Aontu have predictably struggled to make an impact, more noteworthy for their efforts to get court injunctions against debates than anything else. There’s no real sign that they stand to gain any seats, though I suppose it is likely enough at the present time that Toibin will retain. Will Sinn Fein voters transfer to them? It’s hard to see, and certainly not on the back of this low-key campaign where they haven’t been able to properly stake a claim to the spotlight in any way.
I’ll be giving some final predictions the day before the vote.