By Rory O’Sullivan
Election 2020 threatens to be another continuity vote with the Taoiseach yet again coming from one of Ireland’s two civil-war parties. Given their projected vote share this should be the left’s best election since the foundation of the state. Instead, despite having support equalling the combined vote-shares of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, they cannot hope to enter the next Dáil as anything more than a mere constellation of minority partners in a sprawling coalition. They have been muted and nearly silent so far in this campaign, with the traditional media effectively deciding that this is between Martin and Varadkar and skewing their coverage accordingly.
Maybe the dusty corners of Twitter are right, and this is all because of bias; maybe the dominating past of the two parties and respective tooth-lengths of Ireland’s gregarious political correspondents have unfairly inflated their importance.
But mostly it is because the mutual antagonisms and jealousies of the other parties mean that the only workable coalitions in the next Dáil will involve Fine Gael and/or Fianna Fáil, with some smaller parties, which has allowed them to dictate the terms of the campaign to everyone else. Labour have said they will never join a coalition with Sinn Féin, which removes even the faintest prospect of a government without either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. Those two could technically go into coalition together but it would outrage their bases, and surely accelerate their decline by making them even less distinct than they are now. Varadkar’s apparent offer to join a coalition with Martin in the Virgin Media debate was more an effort to seem grown-up than a genuine offer to share a government.
Martin’s refusal earlier today to countenance any coalition with Fine Gael made this even clearer. This aside, neither party will govern with Sinn Féin, meaning neither can enough seats to govern without Labour and the Greens, which have both expressed a vague willingness to serve with both, even if the Greens will have to wrangle with their grassroots membership over a coalition agreement.
This has meant that to ensure that one of them wins and can govern without the other, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have both been aggressively spinning to convince everyone that every big question about the next Dáil is pretty much settled, apart from that of which party will be the largest.
It is for this reason that the two parties have collaborated and so far succeeded in setting the terms of the whole election. It is not simply that doing this sidelines the other parties, but that it pulls voters into an American and British-style binary decision between Martin and Varadkar; that in the next Dáil the Taoiseach will be one of those two has become the premise of the discussion rather than a potential outcome.
The irony of Virgin Media’s head-to-head debate between Martin and Varadkar is that, while seeming to oppose each other, they were in fact performing nearly as great an act of strategic political cooperation as confidence and supply. Before the debates even began, they had won hours of airtime and pages of newspaper-print characterising the election as a contest between two men.
Sinn Féin are right to be furious about it: it is a political coup, and they have been completely blindsided. The high polling numbers have made their exclusion even more controversial, but they are still not enough to overturn the logical conclusion of the last local election results: Sinn Féin are hitting their current electoral ceiling. They have tried to pivot from entrenched opposition party to party of government, only to find that no one wants to be in a government with them. But still to most Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour and Green voters they are toxic, bathed in historical violence, radical, unthinkable; to their own republican base and the rest of the left they are ever-less reliable. People like Martin Ferris, while dwindling in number and kept away from the television cameras, are still everywhere in the rank-and-file of Sinn Féin, and too many people know it for them to get away with it. Eventually, if they want to expand their coalition, they will need to take the short-term hit and jettison that support base.
But even still, the moves to shut Sinn Féin out are an expression of weakness rather than strength. The only reason the two biggest parties are cooperating at all is that they have no choice; both will be scuppered if the election simply returns a result close to the same as now. Say, the Greens and Labour win no more than 15 seats between them (according to The Irish Times, a ‘bad’ day for both parties would leave them with a combined 14), and neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil win more than 50: then, even with Independents and Social Democrats, the arithmetic becomes almost unworkable. For both men who hope to become Taoiseach there is only one, precarious, path to power that does not involve bringing a bitter end at last to the Irish Civil War.
There is no chance of a straight majority for either because of the 40-50% of the country who won’t vote for them, most won’t vote for them at all. They know this very well; which is why their campaigns so far have largely been efforts by each to downplay their own perceived weaknesses in relation to the other, and win over their mutual swing voters, rather than serious attempts to win over anyone else.
Fine Gael have always suffered from the perception that they’re a sneering elite who don’t care about ordinary people, and so their campaign and its slogan are targeted at the dormant guilt about poverty and homelessness among middle-class swing-voters. 2016’s “Keep the Recovery Going” has been supplanted in 2020 by “A Future to Look Forward to”.
Fianna Fáil’s politicians have repeatedly mocked the Fine Gael slogan, and then with a straight face told interviewers that they have no slogan; but, for the second election in a row, they have a “philosophy”: ‘An Ireland for All.’ Of course, it is ridiculous to call a slogan a philosophy when it is obviously a slogan, but there is an advertising-roundtable kind of logic to it. Fianna Fáil, who want to seem a changed party, know that from ‘Let Lemass lead on’ to ‘Arise and follow Charlie’ the one thing of which they have never been accused is possession of a guiding philosophy.
This muscular stuff has pushed Labour and the Greens to the wings, though Labour hardly need help sidelining themselves. They have not evolved in any way since 2016, under Brendan Howlin and, whether they end up in the government or not, are going nowhere.
For the Greens, who will swallow not only former Labour votes but Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil ones as well, it is really a question of how good a day it will be. But most of those votes will be for a stance and not a candidate. Their leader, Éamon Ryan, is chirpily moderate, and moderation of a stance while in government has been the death of every small party in a coalition since the Progressive Democrats. For the Greens, the trouble is all ahead; they may yet rejoin Labour on the road to the political graveyard.
As for the radical TDs such as those of Solidarity/People Before Profit, who did well in 2011 and 2016, they will be lucky to retain what they have. There is no chance they will be in any coalition, and they were therefore always going to be sidelined in an election where the main parties have so effectively made it about which of them will be in the government.
The Social Democrats might add Gary Gannon to the Dáil on a very good day but that is about it for them; when they began five years ago they were a ‘progressive’ party of all things to everyone and now they are nothing to anyone.
If this election proves to them that they are a failed experiment; proves to Labour that their unwavering malleability must change, and proves to Sinn Féin that they cannot be ‘Old’ and ‘New’ at the same time – if it clears the way for something serious to emerge from within this country’s ever-larger alienated minority – then that would be something worthwhile.
Absent this and in the interim there is the possible end of Leo Varadkar’s political career to look forward to, and the possibility that a Fianna Fáil government may – at least – build more houses. But even this is not much; what is really needed is a way of bringing the many left-wings together with a dilution of their respective intolerable flaws. That project would infuriate some of the party-heads and be hard work but is necessary if there is to be real long-term political change in this country. The short-term is already finished.
Rory O’Sullivan is assistant editor of Village