Waiting for the winner
Ireland’s general elections on Saturday have thrown up many paradoxes, offering few clues about the next government, or the future of the country’s three largest parties. Fianna Fáil, which has been out of power since 2011, has topped the tally. However, its 38 seats leaves it far short of the requisite 80 for a clear majority in the 160-strong Irish Parliament. Sinn Féin, the country’s Republican party has, perhaps with good reason, proclaimed itself the real winner: 37 seats, up 14 over the 2016 polls, and its best result. Yet, such a performance does not guarantee the party, with past links to the IRA, an automatic path to government in the current electoral arithmetic, notwithstanding the protestations of its leader, Mary Lou McDonald. The obverse is the position of the governing centre-right Fine Gael of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, now relegated to third place with 35 seats, down 15 from the previous election. To be sure, Mr. Varadkar earned international recognition for steering Dublin’s negotiations with London to protect the soft border with Belfast, and in turn the peace on either side of the island’s political divide. The country is also forecast to emerge among the fastest growing economies in the European Union in 2020. But this putative achievement may only have brought into sharp focus voter disenchantment with Fine Gael’s domestic record.
Ireland has experienced severe shortfalls in affordable housing and health-care delivery, potentially rendering the party’s return to government politically more delicate. All the same, it would be premature to rule it out of contention for power in any coalition. Sinn Féin is said to have benefited from the prevailing discontent. In the run-up to the polls on Saturday, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had ruled out an alliance with the left-wing Sinn Féin. But Micheál Martin, Fianna Fáil leader, has not dismissed working with Ms. McDonald even while emphasising differences over taxation policy and her party’s IRA past. She is believed to have sent out feelers to Labour, the Greens and independents to explore forming a coalition. Sinn Féin has in any case already set out its priorities, to work for the country’s unification with Northern Ireland. This stance will boost nationalist sentiment across the border, where Sinn Féin has consistently opposed Brexit. Under Britain’s EU withdrawal deal, Belfast is de facto member of the bloc’s single market. Sinn Féin’s participation in a new government would almost inevitably alter Ireland’s political configuration. But going by the 70-day stalemate in 2016, negotiations among the main parties could prove protracted. As deliberations commence, the traditional two parties must note that it is a democratic imperative now to engage Sinn Féin with an open mind.