February 10, 2020
A new era in Irish politics with Sinn Féin
This is no doubt a historic moment for Ireland. Sinn Féin has emerged as the winner of the popular vote, backed by younger generations ready to move on from the past and to embrace radical change. Vote counting still goes on until later today, but according to the results so far Sinn Féin reached 24.5% of the first preference votes, followed by Fianna Fail with 22% and Fine Gael with 20.8%. Out of 160 seats, 77 have already been filled with 29 seats for Sinn Féin and 12 seats for each of the two parties that used to define the mainstream in Irish politics. Sinn Féin's victory was a spectacular event. They came on top of the polls even in the constituencies of Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Some forecasts predict Sinn Féin to end up with 39 seats in the assembly, out of the 42 candidates the party was running. The question now is where to go from here.
Sinn Féin's leader Mary Lou McDonald said she would first seek a coalition government without Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. Mindful of the experience of Labour, surging to 37 seats in 2011 just to be wiped out in the 2016 elections after entering a coalition with Fine Gael, this sounds like a clear first choice. But the numbers might not add up if she needs to get another 40 MPs. The Greens have had a disappointing run in these elections, and Labour has not recovered much ground.
The second option is to explore a coalition with Fianna Fáil. Its leader Micheál Martin shocked his party with a U-turn yesterday, signalling that he would be open to start coalition talks with Sinn Féin. Senior Fianna Fáil MPs publicly rejected this, and insisted they would not break their promise to voters. So this is not going to be an easy choice.
The third option, Sinn Féin in opposition to a Fianna Fáil government supported by Fine Gael, was firmly ruled out yesterday. Sinn Féin is poised to govern as Fine Gael categorically rejects the idea of propping up a Fianna Fáil government.
The fourth option is that none of the parties has enough seats or the willingness to form a coalition government. Sinn Féin only runs half of the number of candidates that Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil do. This could end up giving the traditional largest parties more seats than the most popular Sinn Féin. Deadlock could lead to another election. Whether or not such a scenario helps Sinn Féin, either by allowing it to run more candidates or by emphasising the break with the old traditional party politics, depends on how the party will fare in the coming weeks.
The other question is what London is to expect from a Sinn Féin government. Boris Johnson can always fall back on a no-deal option for trade talks, if Sinn Féin were to oppose a trade deal. This would be far worse for Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland than it would be for Tories in the UK. But a Sinn Féin government would pursue Irish unification in the next few years and this would lead to fragmentation within the UK.