The left has just smashed the 100-year conservative domination of Irish politics

Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill & Polling station sign
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Irish parliamentary elections took place on Saturday 8 February. The fact this election took place on a Saturday was in itself historic. There hadn’t been an Irish general election on a Saturday since 1918. That election led to the establishment of the first Dáil (Irish parliament) in 1919.

Just over 100 years later, and the 2020 election could be almost as historic. Because it looks set to shake up the 100-year conservative stranglehold on Irish politics. Because with 134 of the 160 seats already filled at the time of writing, Irish left-wing parties have taken 60 of them and secured 41.5% of all first preference votes. And while it still may not keep one of the two conservative parties out of government, it’s broken their grip on Irish party politics. In short, the Irish left has shaken the two-party system to its core.

Ireland’s first government

Since October 1922, the south of Ireland has been led by either Fine Gael (and its predecessor Cumann na nGaedhael) or Fianna Fáil. But after almost 98 years of this status quo, a change appears to be on the horizon. These two parties have been in the dominant position in previous coalition arrangements. That won’t be the case on this occasion.

Lead-up to election 2020 

The stranglehold these two parties have had over Irish politics was further underlined after the 2016 election. Then, no single party had an overall majority, and clear coalition partners didn’t look obvious. The Irish left didn’t have sufficient numbers to form a government either. So once again, it was Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that took the reins. Fianna Fáil agreed to support Fine Gael in government through a confidence and supply arrangement as Fine Gael had the greatest number of seats. This arrangement was not unlike the one entered into by the UK Conservative Party and the DUP in 2017.

The Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael arrangement was supposed to last just three budgets. However, the delay over Brexit extended that arrangement into 2020 as neither party wanted an election while Brexit was looming. Yet that very agreement appears to have backfired electorally on Fianna Fáil as it tied it to Fine Gael’s record in government.

The government’s record was most pressing for Irish people in this election, and it’s why they demanded change. There’s a crisis in housing, homelessness, and health. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s time in power has worsened all three. The fact that demand for houses has outstripped supply not only means a lack of houses for those wishing to buy, but it has led to soaring rents. Homelessness increased by 60% since this current government took power in 2016.

Sinn Féin tsunami

Of the left-wing parties, Sinn Féin will be the largest. At the time of writing, it has 37 of the 60 left-wing seats, and it took almost 25% of all first-preference votes.

Read on...

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The only downside for Sinn Féin is that it only ran 42 candidates. Because the Irish electoral system – proportional representation with a single transferable vote (PR-STV) – means the excess votes received by the first elected candidate can transfer to their running mates (and this assumes that voters decided to select their running mates as their number two or number three preference).

But that’s something for another day; because the day belonged to the left and to Sinn Féin. And it was a huge turnaround from Sinn Féin’s poor local election result last year.

In this election, though, the magic number is 80. Because that’s the minimum number of seats needed to form a government. That’s the number Sinn Féin will need to get to with its partners to form the next government.

The left alternative

The final result won’t be complete for another day at least. Such is the way with PR-STV, as every vote counts. But there’s no rush in that, because this result is massive, and the moment should be savoured.

Add to this the positive developments in Spain and Portugal, and it shows that left-wing alternatives are not only possible but that people are prepared to back them.

Featured image via Twitter – RTE News & Flickr – RachelH_

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  • Show Comments
    1. And straight away Sky’s business correspondent has started(on their website) the corporate scaremongering at the prospect of a left-wing Irish government.He lists all the panicky investors by sector.Funny that he forgets to mention the 80 billion euro bailout in 2008 to save the banks that the Irish taxpayer will be paying back in perpetuity.The capitalists didn’t object to a government handout back then.Makes you wonder what Bernie Saunders will be up against should he manage to achieve the impossible in November.

    2. What I’ve gradually come to realise over many years is that what we call democracy in much of the world is simply oligarchy, plutocracy, and now mostly some sort of political arm of the corporate world. Sure, people get to vote every few years, but that means nothing. What the left has failed totally to do historically, in the UK and elsewhere, is transform this facade of democracy into actual democracy. This victory for the left will be the same. In five years time, most people will see no positive change in their lives as a result of this vote, no increase in power, democracy will not be created and this will pave the way for a future right wing government to which the left can capitulate further. The problem is that, as a friend of mine once said, those in power on the left enjoy the dopamine hit of dominion too much to give it up. I find it increasingly sickening the way in which individual candidates are somehow expected to have a “vision” of a world to which many can subscribe – it’s no better than X-Factor. For me, what needs to happen is a massive decentralisation of government, along with the money and the powers currently held centrally, to a granular level, perhaps constituencies of 10,000 people or fewer, and a complete removal of the so-called “representative” system, which is so obviously and transparently not about representation at all, in favour of an “elected administrator” system – this would require a different skill-set than the ability to lie without shame that has been historically the case. Instead, we need a deliberative system in which all can participate, and all can contribute directly to decision-making, embedding the notion that those affected by decisions get to make those decisions. If the left did introduce a massive programme of democratisation, enshrined constitutionally and only changeable if constituencies decided to change it, it could never be undone by the right, since who wants to give up power? No, I don’t think the left winning here is anything to savour, as it pretty much means a continuation of a virtually totalitarian right-wing vision of government (centralise, dominate, command, interfere, restrict, deny access). Sad really, since this is life, life is short and it could be so very much better.

    3. I think what made it possible in Ireland is the PR-STV method of having an election when you really have issues to deal with. It eliminates the left, right centre divide amongst the people, and a common sense is allowed to be expressed.
      The first pass the post style in England after the Tory win now is one of entrenchment. One does notice a severe weakening of the democratic sense of things during the Brexit Saga of 4 years.

    4. Sure and now that they are in power in Oireland, will they continue to be an illegal organisation (under the Prevention of Terrorism Act) in the UK? Because if so, the next time an Irish government minister visits that country for any reason they risk being either arrested, or shot on sight (like in Gibraltar), at all at all. Begorrah.

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