As the dust settles and the victors and vanquished count their blessings or nurse their wounds all eyes are on the main political kingmaker, Micheál Martin. Fianna Fáil is likely to play the long game and hold out for as long as possible before conceding that it has no option but to shore up a Fine Gae-led government. There will be much hot air about the responsibilities of others, including Sinn Féin, to ‘step up to the mark’ but the people have spoken and the only tally that counts is the combined 90-plus seats of the two main parties.
The downward and steady drift of the ideological right from 80% of the vote less than twenty years ago to just over 55% in 2016 makes a single large party of the right an historic inevitability no matter how much the leaders of FG and FF resist it. But resist they will, using any excuse to find reasons to differ even though there is hardly a sliver between them on fundamental policies.
It is possible that their reluctance to come together or to agree a minority government arrangement along with right-minded independents or smaller parties will lead to another general election within months but they are both savvy enough to know that the electorate will not reward such failure.
Besides, there is no guarantee that the result will be very different with the two centre-right parties each hovering around the 25% mark but unable to reach the numbers required to form a stable and coherent government that can implement their programmes.
Another factor that will change the dynamic the next time around is the certainty that, with the possible exception of Martin, the faces on the television for the debates between the four main party leaders will be different. Kenny and Burton will be dumped by their respective parties for their poor showing in GE16 while Gerry Adams could be replaced by a younger leader during the coming Dáil term.
As the two parties of the Right play hard to get, the Left cannot claim the historic break-through that some are hailing. Labour has suffered a traumatic implosion and just managed to hold its speaking rights in the Dáil. Sinn Féin increased its numbers but advanced to nowhere near what seemed possible just a few months ago. Obtaining just over 13% of first preference votes is way down on the 17-24% it polled consistently over the previous eighteen months.
A relentless and hostile campaign led by Independent News and Media and the difficulties Adams faced during some of the leader debates and in one-on-one interviews were certainly factors in this late drop in support. But party strategists will also be looking at the rise of the far left in urban areas which ate into its potential vote, and at mistakes such as the three candidate experiment in Donegal as issues to be addressed.
That said, Sinn Féin has increased its vote by 50% and has a raft of new, yet experienced, men and women in the 32nd Dáil providing a solid platform for its project of leading a left-wing government by 2020. Adams brought in Imelda Munster in Louth and has a secure seat into the distant future. Any decision by him to step down will be dictated by his perception of the best interests of the party, north and south, and not by his political or media opponents.
It was something of an exaggeration on the part of the AAA-PBP to describe the outcome as a political earthquake, less still a revolution, when they managed to pull in just 4% of the vote between them. Dancing on the political grave-stones of the Labour casualties is not only crude but exposes their visceral and incorrect tendency to believe that they are the only true believers in the world of progressives. It is a view which guarantees long-term irrelevance and political impotence.
As the noise subsided in the immediate aftermath of the vote some of the new and re-elected Left independents were mature enough to recognise that the potential of the Right to Change movement in bringing a swathe of parties, groups and individuals together was not realised this time around but could be the sort of vehicle to impel greater left-wing unity and a real electoral challenge down the road.
The combined votes of SF, Labour, Social Democrats, Greens and up to 15 progressive independents would outnumber Fianna Fáil in the extremely unlikely event of such a grand coalition with the Soldiers of Destiny being cobbled together. Martin and his circle have insisted all through the election that they would not join with SF under any circumstances, while Adams would nd it difficult to bring his party into an arrangement which could halt or reverse its steady growth. It has captured a significant portion of the under-34 vote which does not entertain the old establishment. It needs to ensure that it remains vibrant and radical and not another version of the same old.
For a long time the SF leader has insisted that he will not repeat the mistakes of the Labour Party which has been emasculated for what it sees as its sacrifice in putting the country first. Since the local elections in 2014 the demise of Labour has been apparent although the scale of its seat loss was not. The 2014 elections showed the steady recovery of Fianna Fáil as former supporters deserted Labour and FG to whom they ‘lent’ their votes in 2011.
The Labour pact in 2016 with Fine Gael arguably pro ted the larger party in late transfers in the final counts in several constituencies and brought a seat bonus to the Blueshirts unjustified by their percentage vote. If there is a lesson for Labour it is that doing the right thing does not necessarily impress the voters unless they feel the results in their lives. Too many promises in the heat of the 2011 campaign were undelivered and party leaders failed to detect the disenchantment and anger of huge numbers of working people until too late. For long periods Labour also failed to promote its actual achievements including marriage equality and workers rights legislation and the prevention of a wide disposal of state assets.
The recovery is real but only for those who do not have to use the defunct health service or struggle with mortgages and childcare costs and whose work is not badly paid and precarious. Telling people they are better off when they are struggling to survive only feeds ingratitude.
It is a matter of some irony that SF and the Social Democrats refused to go down the populist FG route of abolishing the USC or excluding those earning less than €70, 000 as Labour and €80,000 as FF proposed. The people simply refused to believe many of the promises on offer from the government parties. Once bitten twice shy.
A huge number turned to independents of all hues with the Kerry voters in particular giving a lash to the perceived enemies among the élites in Dublin. The Rae Nua dynasty is assured of ascendancy for a long time yet. The fact that up to seven other independents won seats along the west coast confirms that rural decline, and the recent ooding, are issues that the mainstream parties ignored at their peril.
In contrast, the opportunistic attempts by Lucinda Creighton, Terence Flanagan and Billy Timmins to re-invent the PDs and grab a few seats around a FG cabinet table ended in tears and bitter recrimination. Instead, Eamon Ryan re-emerged with Catherine Martin a new deputy in the Green’s original south Dublin stronghold.
The underlying pattern indicates that the par-ties of the Right will have to edge closer if they are to provide a stable administration even if it takes another election to force them together. Anyone suffering the illusion that Fianna Fáil has transmogrified from the people of property to the centre left should study their history books again.
A coalition of whatever sort between the civil war parties poses challenges and oppor-tunities for those who want radical and progressive change. Despite all the election waf e, there will be assaults on public ser-vices and those who provide them and policies that bene t the wealthy will endure. The future for the Left will be determined by the capacity of its various parts, including the community organisations, trade unions and political formations to resist those assaults and to offer a credible alternative when the next election comes around.