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CHANGE? - OR MORE OF THE SAME?

IT’S all over! The people have spoken! But what have they said? In the midst of Storm Ciara Irish voters delivered an electoral bombshell which has baffled most analysts. The winds of change have struck.
For so many years Ireland’s two main political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – which each trace their roots to Irish nationalist divisions in the 1920s – regularly polled over 80% of the votes between them in most elections. This changed, to an extent, in 2016 with smaller parties and independents gaining ground. But last week, the big two polled just 44% between them in a historic, ground-breaking election which saw Sinn Fein top the poll and could have seen them scoop 40% of the seats had they sufficient candidates in the race.
The count resulted in the election of well over 40 new TDs and before it was over an unprecedented number of big names (and, in some cases, talented politicians) were toppling in a surge towards Sinn Fein and, to a lesser extent, smaller left-wing parties and independents. In the North-west, these included names like Lisa Chambers, Eamon Scanlon and Pat The Cope Gallagher.
The resounding success of Rose Conway-Walsh, who almost topped the poll with over 14,000 first preferences, was the story of the election in Mayo while in Sligo-Leitrim Martin Kenny left the others well behind.
The outcome has resulted in a political scenario where there are now three main parties – Fianna Fail (22.2%), Fine Gael (20.9%), Sinn Fein (24.5%) and a plethora of smaller parties and independents.
Undoubtedly, the electorate voted for change on a massive scale, but the result creates many problems. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar broke new ground when he opted for Saturday voting – a positive move which made life easier for the younger voter. As yet, however, few have commented on whether this influenced the outcome, though it has been conceded that this demographic, many of whom are impacted by the housing crisis, flocked in their droves to Sinn Fein.
Undoubtedly, Sinn Féin owes its relative success more to a groundswell of young voters’ impatience on domestic economic and welfare issues rather than to a resurgence of old-style republicanism. It probably also helped that Mary Lou McDonald has replaced Gerry Adams since the last election in 2016. It all meant that one in three voters under 35 had a ready-made vehicle for their frustrations. Also, the majority of these had no experience of the Troubles. Fine Gael has been punished for its failures on health, housing and childcare. Fianna Fáil were tarred with the same brush for “going to bed” with them in the manner they did and they weren’t really forgiven for their role in the 2009-10 banking crisis either.
When the dust settles, however, we don’t know what will replace the FF-FG confidence and supply “marriage”. Sinn Fein were the winners in the election and the momentum is with them. But to enter any coalition arrangement they will have to compromise. Their promises of change won’t be easily honoured. If Michael Martin’s apparent “softening” towards them materialises into substantial negotiations some of their party’s promises – increasing taxes on business and higher earners, a rent freeze abolition of property tax, etc. – may have to be watered down or dropped.
So, while the election result signalled change the kind of change voters want is far from settled. Unfortunately, it may lead to a frustratingly familiar outcome and there will be no decisive break after all?
Since the early ‘80s Ireland has produced coalitions or minority administrations (and sometimes both at once). That is likely to remain the same after this inconclusive election.
The talking and posturing will occupy many weeks to come. We have to be prepared for some kind of fractured coalition and, if not, another general election within a short period – something the country doesn’t want as the Brexit negotiations take hold. The 2020 General Election was unquestionably what the political class likes to call a “change election”. It cannot be good for Ireland that, for now, the outcome looks likely not to be change but may instead mean more of the same.