Let’s stand back. With just one seat fewer than Fianna Fail but with quotas to spare, Sinn Fein’s claim to have gained the moral advantage has credibility in spades. Another reading is just possible. The two centrist parties outnumber them by rather less than 2 to 1. Twice in France the right and left united to defeat the far right in the second round of a presidential election, once by joining together and last time by forming a new political party to achieve the desired result. But France unlike Ireland has been accustomed to forming its main parties around leaders. With the possible exception of de Valera in 1925 this has not been the Irish tradition, although Charles Haughey tried hard to make it so. The system threw up left challengers which have come and gone from Clann na Poblachta to the Workers’ Party. Labour was the regular standard bearer from the beginning but more in opposition than in power. For most of the century there was no duopoly. Fianna Fail was the natural party of government interspersed with weak coalitions until Haughey’s mismanagement and intrigue forced the first Fianna Fail led coalition in 1989.
Thereafter coalitions have been the norm, masking the slow decline of the parties of the civil war. Fianna Fail have enjoyed something of a recovery from their very low base of 20 seats in 2011. It was their collapse after the financial crash that gave Fine Gael the opportunity they were never able to exploit to the full, despite the most dramatic economic recovery you could wish for. But as Fintan O’Toole wrote: the plain fact (was) that in 2016 three quarters of the electorate voted for someone other than Fine Gael – but we got (in essence) a Fine Gael government anyway”.
And so the voters rebelled. If they even noticed it, they overlooked the Paul Quinn case and Sinn Fein’s dark side in favour of “looking to the future”. As Sinn Fein are back in government in the North, why not in the South?
It cannot be guaranteed but Irish politics may be about to reset on a left –right axis at last. That depends as much on the centrist parties as Sinn Fein. Will they unite or be replaced by a party as yet unborn ? Sinn Fein’s moral advantage doesn’t guarantee them seats in government but it denies the centrist parties the automatic right of reversion, especially from a joint base that falls so far short of a majority.
Moral advantage implies a Fianna Fail /Sinn Fein coalition unless Micheal Martin’s conscientious objection is allowed to triumph over political calculation. The only alternative would seem to be another election with the same option as before, only this time with Mary Lou McDonald as Taoiseach.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London