At time of writing, the counts are underway in Ireland’s General Election. Voting closed last night at 2200, and the exit polls suggested that the two establishment parties, Fianna Fáil (FF) and Fine Gael (FG), were neck and neck with a third party, Sinn Féin (SF); with all three taking 22% of the first preference votes.
Firstly, a comment on this. Whatever the outcome of the election, this indicates a sea-change in Irish politics, which many of us have spent years clamouring for. The two main parties – a phrase that may soon become happily redundant – have between them led each and every government since independence, following the turbulent periods of the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. So, if nothing else, SF’s surge in this election indicates a major shake-up.
SF remain the most divisive entity in Irish politics. Having become the political wing of the Irish Republic Army (IRA) during the decades of turmoil in Northern Ireland, they remain in many minds unelectable. I can sympathise with that; I’m still not letting FG off the hook for their association with Fascism in the 1930s. However, we don’t even need to make this association to see how FG’s policies do nothing but widen inequality and benefit the elite. So, they were Fascists in the 30s, and Neoliberals in recent decades. Scumbags either way.
In terms of SF, I wish people would focus on their policies rather than their past. The association with the IRA came from an incredibly different time. I do wonder how I would have felt if I had been growing up in Derry or Belfast in the 60s or 70s. I don’t have an answer for that, but I do try to imagine myself in the shoes of a young man there in that era. Instead, I grew up in tranquil Galway, and the tension and conflict, while only a couple of hours away geographically, seemed like a world away in reality. But because of this, and the sympathy and solidarity I feel for people living under oppression everywhere, I do not view SF, nor even the IRA for that matter, in simple black and white terms.
As an aside, what remains of the IRA today in its various splinter-group guises are nothing but criminal gangs. We’ve had more than 20 years of peace in Northern Ireland (almost entirely, no country can really be described as 100% peaceful), and the political landscape on the island as a whole is very different.
Of course SF’s Republican ideology and its historical ties to the IRA are an easy target for the establishment, a stick for them to be beaten with. In the world we are in today, sniping and mud-slinging are tools which candidates and party leaders use in place of actual political discourse. This is a tactic that FF and FG, along with their friends in the media, have been happy to employ. However, as the results have started to come in, it seems that a significant amount of the electorate have got sick of this childishness, and it has largely backfired. If anything, the exit polls may have underplayed the rise of SF, at least in terms of the candidates that have topped the polls each constituency.
Ireland operates a single-transfer vote system, and historically this has benefited FF and FG, as they have managed to win/hold seats through transferred votes on the second or subsequent counts. So even though SF look highly likely to have won the highest percentage of the votes nationwide, this is only on first preferences. This will most likely not be reflected in actual parliamentary seats once everything has been tallied.
This is not the first time we’ve had what looked like a new dawn however. FF displayed utter incompetence and spinlessness in first allowing the country to spiral into recession with their Neoliberal ideology (and some people still think that they and FG are different), followed swiftly by their scrambling and grovelling to save the elite in the wake of the economic collapse. They paid for this massively in 2011’s General Election, losing 58 of the 78 seats they have won in the previous election. But they didn’t take long to come back and become major players again. Had FG been at the helm when the recession hit, the exact same would have happened to them.
However, at first glance, 2020’s election sees both FF and FG getting their nose bloodied. This is certainly a first. One or both of them will still be in government when the smoke clears, but for the first time it looks as if a SF-led government may not be too far away.
Would a SF government change Irish the face of Irish politics radically? Or would they eventually succumb to cronyism and become that which they sought to replace? Who knows. But I for one am very happy to see a change. It’s time somebody else took the wheel. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll end up with a fairer, more equitable, and more democratic Ireland. Imagine that?
[posted at Sunday lunchtime – the election count continues]