While the weekend saw one of the slowest counts most pundits had ever seen, the delay gave three days for the results to sink in. Some journalists are calling this polling day Sinndependence Day, after the enormous success of Sinn Féin and independent candidates.
Certainly Sinn Féin have nearly tripled its seats in the local councils and gained 3 MEPs compared with none from the last European elections in 2009. At the same time Labour’s vote has collapsed and Fianna Fáil, the party held responsible for the economic crisis, has proved more resilient than expected and held their local support. RTE online provides detailed electoral breakdown.
But the rise in support for Sinn Féin is only one symptom of a wider change in the Irish political landscape. What’s more significant is how the tradition political cleavages are breaking down. Those observing the transfers (Ireland uses a PR electoral system) shows that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have transferred to each other in this election in numbers not seen before.
For those less familiar with Irish political divisions, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael represent the parties formed from two opposing sides of the Irish Civil War in 1922/1923. The two parties, historically centre-right (FG) and centre with centre-left sympathies (FF) have never been in coalition. Their voters and the candidates often inherit the position.
Labour goes into coalition with FG on occasion then suffers afterwards for it in the polls. But Labour was distinctly the third party, one of a number opposition parties.
Sinn Féin’s support stayed under 8% in most elections and there was huge stigmas attached to membership because of the Northern Ireland conflict. Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act in Ireland forbidden the broadcasting of the voice of any Sinn Féin member. They could not take part in public debate. This only ended in the early 1990s so for them to be a significant player in the this election is remarkable.
One way this changing political landscape tripped Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE, up was the category of ‘others’. ‘Others’ is made up of all independent/non-party candidates and smaller parties, Socialists, People Before Profit, and the Green Party, among others.
But in this election ‘others’ was one of the largest groups and so displaying results in this way is not very informative.
The rise of the left was one of the most talked about outcomes of these elections. Despite making foolish decision such as the Socialist Party running its candidates as the AAA (Anti-Austerity Alliance) which no one had heard of or changing the name of the party in the European election to Stop the Water Tax – The Socialist Party, they won 12 seats on county and city councils. People Before Profit, primary a working group of the Socialist Workers Party, also took 12 seats.
Political discussion and analysis by many journalists failed to catch up with the new realities. Talking about the four historic parties and “the rest” no longer adds to the conversation.
Other changes can be seen in the issues that effect voters. Jobs, tax and healthcare will be central to most elections and the rise of real left parties has forced discussion on economic alternatives into the mainstream but new issues are also coming into play. Social equality, gender, sexuality and race, are becoming increasingly significant.
Darren Scully, who was mayor of Naas at the time, claimed that he did not represent the African community in his constituency. He resigned as Mayor and was expelled from Fine Gael. In this election, not only was he allowed to return to Fine Gael but he was re-elected to the council in Naas.
At the same time Sinn Féin ran Edmond Lukusa, Chairperson of the Congolese Consortium of Ireland and he was elected to the Fingal council.
Ireland’s growing immigrant communities are still not only underrepresented in Irish politics but social disconnected from it as well. The parties that connect with this demographic before the next general election will hold a significant advantage over the parties who do not.
A gender quota of 30% is expected to be in place by the next general election and so many analysts are already pointing at parties that will struggle to comply with that, such as Fianna Fáil. Marriage equality activists are expecting marriage reform in this next two years and increased rights for GSRM couples and families will have to be in the manifestos of many parties.
The next general election will be one that defines Irish politics for the decade to come.