Ireland’s 2020 General Elections: Who will be the first to break their promise?

elections ireland flickr
Ireland voted for a change in the 2020 general elections. The change may not come if Sinn Féin fails to form a government.

A week or so after Irish voters dealt out the cards in the 2020 general elections, a picture of the future government in Ireland remains blurred.

On February 8, a total of 2,182,489 Irish citizens or 62.38% cast their votes in the elections. Prior to the vote, people and the media had been saying Ireland needed a change, but the electorate did not manage to send out a clear message via the elections.

Instead, most of 160 seats in the Dái Éireann, the lower house of the Irish parliament, got distributed among three major parties, which seem to keep on ruling out any form of cooperation for now.

The nationalist Sinn Féin (SF), which returned their best ever election results, consider two other major parties Fianna Fáil (FF) and Fine Gael (FG) as not “ideal partners”; Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald also said a FF-FG coalition would be “a slap in the face” to the electorate. The two parties claimed before elections they would not cooperate; today FG leads a minority government with Independents along with quiet support from FF, officially known as a confidence and supply arrangement.

A hard nut to crack

Sinn Féin, having the strongest fanbase on Facebook and Twitter of all political parties, rocked Ireland’s political scene in the general elections following failures in last year’s EP and local elections. A total of 24.54% or 535,573 people voted for SF in the 2020 general elections, which won 37 seats.

FF won 22.19%, which granted the party 38 seats in the Dáil, including the seat of returning ex-Ceann Comhairle, Seán Ó Fearghaíl. Fine Gael won 35 seats after it acquired 20.87% in Ireland’s 2020 general elections. Differences among the three parties are thus marginal with no clear winner. Four other smaller parties, along with a number of Independents, also managed to win seats in the Dáil.

The 33rd Dáil meets on Thursday, February 20, for the first time, and 160 elected deputies (TDs) will choose its chair (Ceann Comhairle) and deputy chair. Following this, the leaving Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar, a FG party leader, should be replaced provided a new Taoiseach is nominated in the Dáil, supported by the majority of 80 votes and appointed by the President.

Ireland finds itself in a three-way tie but calls for a new and stable government to be formed as soon as possible will be growing as days go. The EU is soon to decide on its budget for the next seven years, including Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) payments to farmers. The EU will also negotiate a new trade deal with Britain, with fisheries being part of the deal. And these are matters of importance to Ireland.

What scenarios are in play?  

Let’s first look at post-election figures resulting from Ireland’s 2020 general elections held on February 8:

election turnout 2020 ireland

The 2020 Ireland GE turnout

1. Sinn Féin and small parties

Given the gains of the parties in the 2020 general elections, Sinn Féin is forced to seek partners. The party aims to create a left-led government. SF needs 80 votes in the Dáil to form the government.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have both refused to form a government with Sinn Féin for its troubled past. SF itself is not fond of a coalition with any of the two parties:  the party seeks a change and wants to replace FF and FG, which have ruled Ireland for decades. If FG or FF changed its standpoint towards SF, it would make way for easier formation of Ireland’s new government. This is unlikely to happen at present, however.

This also means Sinn Féin would have to seek partners among smaller parties elected to the Dáil.

Having 37 TDs in the Dáil, Sinn Féin would thus have to persuade the Independents (19), Greens (12), Labour (6), and Social Democrats (6) to join SF in forming the government. Even if the party managed to get them aboard, the question is how stable this government could be.

2. Second election

If Sin Féin fails, Fianna Fáil will try to form a government as it came second in the elections. The party rejects to cooperate with both SF and FG. But Fianna Fáil supports today’s minor government led by FG.

FF party leader Micheál Martin, moreover, told RTÉ News that a new election “could not be ruled out”. His party could form a government with FG and some other parties, but there is no incentive to do so at this point on either of the political camps.

Hence, new general elections still seem to be a likely option as none of the parties want to break their pre-election promises on. Nevertheless, Business Post’s latest Red C poll showed only 15% of voters wish for another election.

3. Minor government led by Fianna Fáil

The scenario of a minor government is not discussed much but given the current state of affairs – FF and FG cooperate in the Dáil on the confidence and supply arrangement – it could become a reality with a bit of a twist.

This means FF, not FG, would lead a future minor government with the Greens, which is the party deemed as a potential partner. The Greens rose from 1.9% in 2016 to 7.09% in 2020, owning now 12 seats. FF could, however, decide to cooperate with the Independents, who won more seats, instead.

Fine Gael could then serve as a quiet partner to the government, which is what Fianna Fáil does today. Also, FG members are not united as regards their potential involvement in the future government; some refuse to cooperate with FF, some would support FF-led government. The third scenario could thus be seen as a middle ground.

4. FF, FG, Greens (and maybe SocDems)

As there are a few European matters coming up, which are crucial for Ireland, the country will need a new strong government. Until it is formed, the country will be led by Fine Gael and its chair Varadkar.

Varadkar has said his party is ready to act as a strong opposition after the 2020 general elections. It is unknown if FG would quietly support the Fianna Fáil government while sitting on opposition benches. But if centre-right parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil want to avoid another election, minor government, or Sinn Féin-led government, it means promises will have to be broken.

“”We are willing to consider participating in a government but only as a last resort, and only if we are wanted and needed.” Varadkar told the press.

Both parties are to meet this week, but it is already rumoured a grand coalition of FF, FG, and the Greens seems to be a “mission complete”. Provided one of the three parties gets a post of the chair of Dáil, which is a non-partisan function, parties would still have 84 seats in the Dáil.

The Extra.ie website wrote about a potential plan of the tree parties on February 16, claiming Fine Gael would insist on a rotating Taoiseach and obtaining six ministerial posts. Both parties would allow the Greens to take the role of a deputy prime minister (Tánaiste) and to hold three ministerial chairs.

Michael O’Regan wrote in The Irish Times that the three parties should take Social Democrats onboard as well. He supported his claim by saying the government would have a comfortable majority of 91TDs. Moreover, O’Regan said it would be “unwise” for the Greens to go into government on its own with FG and FF, taking into consideration its previous experience in government.

5. FF, Greens, Independents, SocDems & Labour  

Ireland’s governments have been formed by one or two parties over the years. Only a few times over the course of history three parties formed a coalition indeed.

Although the electorate voted for a change in terms of a new party, not FG and FF, leading the country, a change could come in another way – a number of parties forming a coalition.

Similarly to Sinn Féin’s efforts, Varadkar suggested FF should try to form a government with the Greens, Independents, Social Democrats and Labour.

If such a government was formed, it would be a rare situation. The last time such a grand coalition was formed was back in 1948. The then government, led by Fine Gael, was made up of five diverse parties, which had one thing in common – a dislike of Fianna Fáil.

Conclusion: Unwanted FF and FG may form a coalition

A post-election analysis by RED C Research, published on February 11, revealed why Ireland considered shifting to Sinn Féin ahead of the 2020 general elections: 39% said it was time for real change and 39% said they did not want FF or FG to govern. Housing, pensions, and healthcare were only minor reasons.

If Sinn Féin fails to form the government, which seems quite probable, the electorate may eventually see no radical change, and FF and FG could form the government, most likely with help of one or two smaller parties. It will then be up to the parties to decide to what extent they will get “inspired” by the Sinn Féin manifesto to please the nationalist party’s increased number of voters.

READ ALSO: The 2020 Irish General Elections: Everything you need to know

However, if the two major parties do not step away from their positions, a second election could happen.

The 1948 situation is also in the game provided a dislike of FF or FG in the case of Sinn Féin prevails at the negotiating table with small parties. The same applies to FF. If the party managed to get its dislike of Sinn Féin across to smaller parties, a government of five could be formed. How stable such governments could be is a matter of time.

About the author

Peter Dlhopolec


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