General Election 2020 is in the books, and a lot quicker than usual. On Friday evening I made my own final predictions, that looked like this:
And once all 160 seats had been filled, Dail Eireann now looks like this.
So I over-estimated Fianna Fail by 8, under-estimated Fine Gael by 2, under-estimated Sinn Fein by 2, under-estimated Independents by 2, under-estimated Labour by 1, under-estimated the Social Democrats by 1, and got Solidarity-People Before Profit, Independents4Change and Aontu dead-on. So, off by 16 in various ways. Not too bad, right?
Let’s go through it, party by party, in order of seats, and discuss what went right, what went wrong and what we should expect in the days, weeks and months to come.
Fianna Fail are the biggest party in terms of seats, but, as has been pointed out elsewhere, once you subtract the automatic re-election of the Ceann Comhairle, they were actually in a dead-heat with Sinn Fein, and behind them in terms of nationwide FPV percentage. That’s not a good election, no matter how you look at it. Martin’s efforts to dissociate himself with the confidence and supply arrangement, and to belatedly try and turn his fire on Sinn Fein, were both failures. Fianna Fail, very happily for me, have been shown that the electorate has not forgotten 2007-2011, and that the loyalty they previously inspired no longer exists in the same form. Now they face the awkward choice of staying in opposition for potentially another five years, or going into a government where they may well become even less popular. And, also, whether they want to continue with Martin in charge, already looking like a busted flush.
This is the crowning moment in the electoral history of Sinn Fein since the decision to go into the Dail. McDonald’s campaign was great, and people wanted change: Sinn Fein offered to them, and how. The insults and the criticisms bounced off of her and the party. People, to an extent that I among many others underestimated, had simply had enough of the two main parties, and wanted a viable alternative. Sinn Fein has benefited from being the next thing going. There is an element of fairweatherness to the vote – four new TD’s lost council seats last May, and one went on holiday during the campaign – that Sinn Fein should be wary of, and they could do with getting a grip on the “Up the ‘RA” element. But they hold a lot of cards here: the chance to form a government that they can lead, or a quick election they are likely to make even more gains in.
There is little other way that you could describe the election result for Fine Gael, other than as a “disaster”. Varadkar was a disaster, the vote management was a disaster and the seat total is a disaster. In another era the Taoiseach would already be gone. Whether it is because of disconnect with the electorate, being in government for too long or the way that Fine Gael have consistently been portrayed as arrogantly deaf to issues like homelessness, this election was always going to result in lost seats, but few would have predicted this many lost. It could be a long way back, and Varadkar is making the right choice if he decides a spell in opposition would be beneficial. Like Martin, many in Fine Gael would be wise to consider if he is the man to lead them back to government.
The various Independents did a bit better than expected, in many cases benefiting as much as anyone by the Sinn Fein wave. The usual crowd – the Healy-Rae’s, Lowry et al – got back in, and there was a fair smattering of left and right-wing non-party people otherwise. But they still lost some high-profile names, and Ireland in general has still swung a bit away from Independents.
While some have claimed the result was less than expected, this was still a spectacular return for the Greens. Four times as many seats, and breakthroughs in areas where such wins would have been unthinkable just three years ago. Staying in the centre and trying to appeal to everyone will always be a winning strategy in Ireland, at least to an extent, and Ryan and the Greens won out big this time. What happens next is the big question, and we may soon see if a party that is really two factions under one banner can remain a house united in government. I doubt Ryan will be leader in a few years, but he can be satisfied with this achievement.
What a low-ebb this is for the Labour party, less than a decade removed from having 37 TD’s. Howlin has already announced his decision to step down from the leadership, and the road back to relevancy for the party will be long. The campaign was terrible, the engagement nonexistent, the reliance on spent forces like Joan Burton and Emmet Stagg more than a little embarrassing. They need someone with energy in leadership to turn things around, and they may well be Alan Kelly. Whatever I think of the man, I’m sure he would be better for the party than Howlin was.
I said the Social Democrats needed gains to stay relevant, and boy did they achieve those gains. Six TD’s returned is a spectacular result, especially in Cork and Wicklow. Now, from being a hairs breath away from being a spent force of their own, they may well be heading into government, just a few years removed from coming into existent. People liked their policies, their candidates and their alternative. If they play their cards right, the Social Democrats could yet rise and rise.
If you had offered five seats to Solidarity-People Before Profit at the start of the campaign, they probably would have bitten your hand of. The loss of Coppinger was disappointing, but the return of Murphy and others was a very unexpected boon. But there is danger aplenty, as those returns were based very much on Sinn Fein’s surpluses, and those cannot be relied upon in future. A spell in government remains a dicey prospect, but could be just what the hard-left needs to showcase why they remain an important part of the Oireachtas.
Independents4Change did all that they could have been reasonably expected to do with the re-election of Joan Collins, but need to be wary of being an unimportant part of the 33rd Dail, eclipsed by others on the hard and centre left.
Aontu, if they were being really honest with themselves and everyone else, knew before a vote was cast that a return of one TD was about as much as could be hoped for. They were reasonably competitive in a few different areas, but remain a party that has a hell of a lot of work to do to make an impact beyond Toibin.
As for the micro-parties that I talked about here, it was a case of see you later and thanks for dropping by. None of their candidates got anywhere near a seat, and for most of them it was the dreaded status of having to go home without expenses to be claimed. On the basis of this result, there seems to be little future for Ireland’s far-right or far-left minnows.
But what happens next? All of the options have their downsides. A FF/FG coalition with one other smaller party and some Inds? Doomed to unpopularity and certain to increase the standing of Sinn Fein. FF/SF or SF/FG? Will destroy Sinn Fein in the first instance, and is practically impossible in the second. A Danish model, where consensus is built issue by issue? Liable to break down quick, and to be unacceptably slow otherwise. A broad-left coalition? Short of the majority needed, and thus reliant on supply from one of Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, who could pull the plug at a time of their choosing.
It’s hard to see where a government comes from in such circumstances, and how long any government will be able to last. There are no easy answers, but I would think that the left-wing deserves a shot, given the nature of the election and what the Irish people voted for. Sinn Fein, the Greens, maybe Labour, certainly the Social Democrats, whatever elements of Solidarity-People Before Profit that could be brought on-board, Independents4Change and left-leaning Independents, they could muster 60 seats or so. A limited programme for government, to last a year and be renegotiated at that point, with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael somehow compelled to abstain on the key votes, or to support what they are happy to support, is probably the best bet. We live in interesting times.
Over to you, 33rd Dail.