Ireland’s election leads to uncertainty over identity of next government


Last month’s Irish election resulted in a hung Dáil and uncertainty about the nature and identity of the next government. Alan Whysall discusses the result and its possible implications on both sides of the border.

A general election by single transferable vote to the lower house of the Irish parliament, the Dáil, was held on 26 February. The government suffered badly. The 32nd Dáil is hung, and there may not be a successor government for some weeks.

The following table summarises seats won, and first preference votes cast:

Party Seats Vote share (first preferences)
Fine Gael 50 25.5%
Fianna Fáil 44 24.4%
Sinn Féin 23 13.9%
Labour 7 6.6%
Independent/Other 34 29.7%

The Dáil has 158 seats, so 80 are required for an overall majority. There is more detail on the election here.

The result was a profound upset for the governing Fine Gael/Labour coalition. It had come to power in 2011 when the government led by Fianna Fáil was blamed for the economic crash – which was made all the starker because it followed the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years of prosperity. This time Fine Gael’s share of the vote slumped, well beyond its expectations and most poll predictions, and that of Labour, as with junior coalition partners elsewhere, suffered even more. Fine Gael – though inspired, some say, by the UK Conservative effort last year – was generally held to have had a disastrous campaign. Its slogan of ‘Let’s keep the recovery going’ was thought to have antagonised many who did not see themselves having enjoyed any fruits of recovery, although Ireland is now one of the Eurozone’s best performing economies.

Fianna Fáil was the main beneficiary, at last shedding the incubus of responsibility for the crash, coming quite close to Fine Gael in first preference votes and in Dáil seats, again beyond most poll predictions (FG’s six-seat lead over FF is attributed in part to skilled vote management, a black art to which STV elections lend themselves).

Sinn Féin, fighting on an anti-austerity platform, substantially increased its vote and seat count, though not as much as many pollsters and others had expected. And there is now an even greater number of small parties and independents, something the single transferable vote system favours, many of them also with an anti-austerity agenda.

Uncertainty reigns. The old Fine Gael/Labour government has been pronounced unsustainable by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. There is some talk about a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil pact, the only real possibility of majority government, perhaps with a revolving Taoiseach. Some see such a development as the end of ‘civil war politics’: these two parties have always been differentiated more by their origins in the 1920s than any clear ideological distinction, and the thought is that they would coalesce into a permanent centre-right grouping, leaving a left-wing movement to form around Sinn Fein.

Sinn Féin and others would welcome this prospect. But it does not appear to attract Fianna Fáil, which ruled out such alliances during the campaign. It also forswore an alliance with Sinn Fein, and Sinn Fein does not want to be anyone’s junior coalition partner. Both parties probably see scope for further building their standing untrammelled by government responsibility.

Intensive discussions go on between the large parties and smaller players; the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has expressed a wish to see very early reform of the Dáil, to make it more  ‘expert and independent’, which would gratify smaller parties.

The alternatives to a FG/FF government are a minority government of either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, managing to get its budgets through and avoiding no-confidence votes through some sort of accommodation with other parties; or an early further election (Irish parliaments are not fixed term). Few see that as attractive, but this Dáil is unlikely to run its full five year term.

It meets on 10 March when parties may nominate and the Dáil will then votes on candidates for Taoiseach, but it seems unlikely that matters will be clear then. Ireland may have caretaker government for several weeks at least – a Taoiseach who lacks the support of a majority in the Dáil must under Article 28 of the Constitution resign, but continues to carry on his duties till a successor is appointed.

Personalities may change. Enda Kenny has not impressed during the election, and could well soon be replaced as leader of Fine Gael, especially if he ceases to be Taoiseach. Some in Sinn Féin believe they would do a good deal better without Gerry Adams as leader, given the allegations that surround his Republican past, but there is unlikely to be any putsch to precipitate change there.

On the fundamentals of Irish government direction, little may change. The anti-austerity agenda does not have a majority. Difficult decisions may, of course, not be taken.

The close and growing cooperation with UK governments that has characterised the last few years is likely to continue. The main parties will continue to be alarmed at the prospect of Brexit, which the outgoing Irish government has been strongly urging against.

Partly that is for reasons connected with the wider relationship with the UK, but it is particularly because of concerns about Northern Ireland. The Irish fear not only damage to cross-border economic relations and the potential tensions of a hard border, but also the possibly far-reaching political consequences, especially if Brexit were to lead to Scottish independence.

Will Irish government policy on Northern Ireland change? Fianna Fáil argued a few years ago that Irish governments in particular, but also British governments, had become insufficiently attentive to Northern Ireland issues. Both governments have since necessarily assumed a more active role as the devolution settlement became more troubled. Fianna Fáil’s new influence and Sinn Féin’s greater strength in the Dáil may make Northern Ireland issues more often an issue in domestic politics, but there is no indication that policy will change significantly in substance.

With a further election in prospect in the south, Sinn Féin will probably maintain the full force of its anti-austerity stance, with consequent potential tensions with its role in government in Northern Ireland. So any further fiscal retrenchment required there by Whitehall could result in further stand-offs. Meanwhile Northern Ireland has its own Assembly election on 5 May. The two parts of Ireland remain places apart politically, though, and it is hard at present to see much further read across from the Irish election to that one.

About the author

 Alan Whysall is a former senior civil servant who has worked on Northern Ireland for most of the last 35 years. In his retirement he has become an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, where he is undertaking further work on Northern Ireland, together with Hilary Jackson and Brian Walker.

2 thoughts on “Ireland’s election leads to uncertainty over identity of next government

  1. Very good assessment of the situation. It will be very much a missed opportunity if Fine Gael and Fianna Fail do not step up to the post and form a coalition or at least some sort of accommodation which gives Ireland a stable government for some years. It is frankly ludicrous to go on pretending that support or opposition to “the treaty” is a sensible dividing line between political parties. After all there is now a new “treaty” – the Good Friday Agreement, which was endorsed by both these parties and by popular referendum north and south.

    Are they really going to throw away this historic opportunity to normalise party politics in the Republic of Ireland? Are they really going to tell the electorate – “Sorry guys you got it wrong – try again” ? How about the old cliche attributed to Einstein – The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results” I reckon if there was any different result it would show further advance in Sinn Fein support.

  2. Pingback: A long time coming: the formation of Ireland’s new minority government | The Constitution Unit Blog

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