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Ireland Election: Could Sinn Féin overtake Varadkar’s Fine Gael?


Since Ireland’s last general election in 2016, the centre-right Fine Gael (EPP) has led a minority government in Ireland’s national parliament, the Dáil Éireann. The Government coalition is made of Fine Gael and Independents members of parliament (MPs) and has survived the past four years due to an agreement with liberal Fianna Fail (RE) which saw the main opposition party abstain on confidence and supply votes. This kind of arrangement between Ireland’s historical rivals was not expected to last so long, and if it had not been for Brexit then it probably wouldn’t have. As the border between Ireland, the republic, and Northern Ireland became the biggest stumbling block in negotiations between the European Union and United Kingdom, opposition parties rallied behind the Government to protect Ireland’s interests and maintain there would not be a hard border on the island. Now with the UK out of the EU, Taoiseach (head of government) and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar called an election for Saturday 8th February 2020.

Sinn Féin’s surprise surge

In 2016 Fianna Fail unexpectedly came just 1% and 6 seats behind Fine Gael.  Since then, the Irish media has long predicted the next election would be a two-horse race as smaller parties and independent MPs got squeezed out by the two major players. Opinion polls from 2016 to 2017 gave Fianna Fáil a narrow lead over Fine Gael, but following Varadkar’s election as Fine Gael leader in 2017 his party enjoyed a surge in support and has led most polls, gaining further support during the most difficult moments of the Brexit negotiations. After heavy losses in the European and local elections in 2019 and amid poor polling, left-wing Sinn Féin (GUE/NGL) was expected to lose seats under its new leader Mary Lou McDonald, while the 2020 election was being framed as a presidential-style contest between Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. The first polls of 2020 began to cast doubt on these assumptions, however.

Since the start of the campaign Fine Gael’s support has dropped into the low 20s while Fianna Fáil has maintained a healthy lead. The most shocking trend detected by all polling companies has been the surge in Sinn Féin support which went from as low as 11% in November to just a few points behind Fine Gael. As the campaign has entered its last week, the latest Ipsos MRBI poll indicates Sinn Féin is the most popular party in the country at 25%, with Fianna Fáil on 23% and Fine Gael in 3rd place on 20%. If polling trends from 2011 and 2016 play out again this time, Fianna Fáil should perform better than the polls are forecasting while Sinn Féin could similarly underperform, meaning most media outlets are still predicting Fianna Fáil to emerge as the largest party. Sinn Féin is also disadvantaged as the increase in support caught them so by surprise, they are only running 42 candidates and are expected to miss out on several seats because of this.

What’s changed?

While Fine Gael had hoped to contest the election on the issue of Brexit, highlighting the strong performance of their ministers in the negotiations, most Irish voters are no longer worried about the impact of the UK leaving the EU. An Irish Times Ipsos MRBI poll showed only 3% of voters named Brexit as a deciding factor in how they’d vote with 40% listing health and 32% naming housing as the most important issues. These are two areas where Fine Gael is seen as having failed with long waiting times in overcapacity hospitals and Irish renters facing some of the most expensive rental prices in the world, while homelessness levels continue to rise. Although Fianna Fáil have harshly criticised the government’s record on health and housing, their own part in the Irish financial crisis of 2008 and their support of Fine Gael in confidence votes for both the Minister for Housing and Minister for Health has left a lot of voters skeptical about whether a Government led by Martin would be able to deliver the change they desire. The same Ipsos MRBI poll pointed to a desire for “radical change” driving people towards Sinn Féin who’ve promised big investment into public housing and healthcare. In addition, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael ruling out any kind of coalition that would include Sinn Féin, due to the party’s past links to the Provisional IRA terrorist group, which has fed into the narrative of the party being outsiders challenging the establishment.

An Irish “Green Wave”

In 2019 the Green Party (Green/EFA) made big gains in the European and Local Elections, returning 2/13 MEPs and 49/949 local councillors along with their first ever by-election victory which increased their representation to 3 MPs. Climate change seemed to becoming a more concerning issue for Irish voters and opinion polls predicted big gains for the party, especially in the capital city of Dublin. While only 7% of voters now list climate change as their priority the Greens are still polling between 7% and 10% which would represent a big increase from their 3% in 2016 and could see them possibly win more than 10 seats and record their best ever performance in an Irish general election. While Sinn Féin have taken up most of the media attention during the campaign, Green MPs are expected to play a role in forming the next coalition and could become kingmakers if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael end up with similar seat totals.

What will happen?

As voters head to cast their votes, it is hard to imagine Fine Gael being in a position to form a government following the election and with a lack of candidates, even if Sinn Féin emerges as the most popular party it is Fianna Fáil who will most likely be the largest party in the next parliament. With 160 seats up for grabs, excluding the speaker (Ceann Comhairle) 80 seats will be needed for a majority. None of the three big parties are likely to get anywhere near that and so will either need to form a grand coalition or rely on smaller parties. Along with the Green Party, the centre-left Labour Party (S&D) is also considered a likely coalition partner. Since falling from 37 seats in 2011 to a mere 7 in 2016 they have stagnated during the campaign but some strong local candidates could see them maintain their current seats and perhaps make small gains. Meanwhile the centre-left Social Democrats (S&D) with currently 2 MPs are also hoping to be part of the next government. In contrast, the left-wing Solidarity-People Before Profit (GUE/NGL) alliance are the only party to rule out supporting either a Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil government and have committed themselves to only supporting a left-wing coalition with parties such as Sinn Féin and the Greens. With 6 outgoing MPs, Solidarity-PBP will be hoping they can keep the gains they made in 2016 on a platform against austerity and the controversial issue of water charges. Independent MPs were crucial in helping form a Fine Gael-led coalition in 2016 and while their numbers will likely be down following this election may still be needed by the next government for a working majority.

Even once the counting is finished, we may still have to wait for long coalition negotiations before we find out who will govern Ireland for the next 5 years.