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A new era in Irish politics?

Comment & Opinion

Edwin McGreal

So much has yet to be revealed about the seismic Irish election result. At this stage it is really too early to tell what it will mean going into the future. Such wholesale changes need time to crystallise.
It is safer to contrast the result with elections past to see what the lessons are from our history.
The vote feels like a big break from the duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and the answer as to why is probably found in recent Irish history.
The governing party will always be under pressure, as Fine Gael found out. However, Irish politics has historically been very predictable. When voters got tired of Fianna Fáil in government they turned to Fine Gael. And when Fine Gael were not appealing to the masses in government, voters went back to Fianna Fáil.
And on it went, for generations.
Except this time.
And that is a legacy of the crash of the Celtic Tiger. Fine Gael were seen as the alternative in the first post-crash election, in 2011. Under Enda Kenny, they stormed to victory, amassing 76 seats.
Even though they were the party in government, they still had enough credit in the bank to win the 2016 election.
Nine years, though, is a long time in power – the longest Fine Gael have managed since the days of Cumann na nGaedhael. It spoke a lot about where Fianna Fáil were post crash. But the 2020 election told you even more.
People had enough of Fine Gael. They were seen as out of touch. The housing and health crises were huge issues. But the cycle of Irish politics shows that it is very hard to lead for as long as that, with some Fianna Fáil-led exceptions, notably from 1997 to 2011.
The difference now, though, is that when people were fed up with Fine Gael, for the first time ever, they did not turn to Fianna Fáil.
While the party has grown since their meltdown of 2011 when they only won 20 seats, it is clear they have not yet won back the trust of the electorate.
Their handling of the economy during the Celtic Tiger and the resulting economic crash hasn’t been forgotten by voters. It has been a huge catalyst for a change in approach by voters in recent elections.
So, in 2020, more than ever before, people turned in another direction.
Sinn Féin were the beneficiaries of the mood for change, not Fianna Fáil. They enjoyed a phenomenal success, and the fact that so many of their incredible surplus votes transferred to left-leaning candidates showed a huge ideological shift by Irish voters.
It is arguable Ireland has never had a forceful left-wing since Labour stood back from the elections of 1921 to allow it to be effectively a referendum on the Treaty. You had what would become Fine Gael on the pro-Treaty side and what would become Fianna Fáil pushing the anti-Treaty side.
Labour never fully recovered – despite the Spring Tide and the Gilmore Gale surges, which were short lived – and Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil went on to dominate the Irish political landscape for generations. Until now.
It remains to be seen how Fine Gael might fare in coming elections.
In government, they were always up against it. In opposition, might they been seen as an alternative that people can trust when the electorate gets fed up, as they will, of the next government, whatever shape it takes? They are not haunted by the legacy of the crash like Fianna Fáil, no matter where their star is right now.
They are on more-stable ground than Fianna Fáil, but both parties are at a huge crossroads.
With so many voters moving to the left, the centre ground is more crowded than ever. Both parties might have something of an ideological examination.
Fine Gael – more centre-right, pro-business and less interventionist – are probably clearer about their identity. Fianna Fáil, for generations, would have felt they were more the party of the working class, but now they’ve lost that ground.
Can they regain it? Will the parties of the left, led by Sinn Féin, remain as strong?
It is hard to tell because we are living in unchartered times in Irish politics. Buckle up.