How Ireland Voted 2020: Certainly the end of an era, but the beginning of what?

I must confess, through a combination of not really having understood what happened in February 2020 and the long period of government formation and the onset of Covid I was thoroughly discouraged from delving into the south’s last election.

Now, I have my copy of How Ireland Voted 2020. It’s a regular publication edited in previous years by Michael Gallagher and Michael Marsh now joined by UCC academic Theresa Reidy. The biggest talking point in the whole book is Sinn Féin.

That this features more than the historic failure of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is hardly surprising since its sudden bounce from apparent massive systemic failure the year before to unprecedented success took even them by surprise.

The book contains lots of detail on many different angles. But for the purpose of this review I’ll draw on just two.

Cunningham and Marsh point out in Voting Behaviour Sinn Féin’s election, the fall of the two main parties fits with a 40 year trend (8% each decade) towards greater fragmentation, driven by huge social change.

It’s been a truism in politics that campaigns don’t change outcome but in 2020 the late deciders were key. The opening poll of the campaign put FF on 32%, FG 20 and had SF at 19. Sentiment moved towards SF in that first week and stayed there.

They note that Sinn Féin’s tally ‘consists of a substantial number of people who voted for the party for the first time and who do not (yet perhaps) feel close to it’. Voter volatility was high with between 40-45% of voters shifting from 2016.

The social class reading probably tells you more than anything else what the internalised values of the parties are, with FG taking 27% of ABC1s to just 14% C2DEs, compared to FF 22% to 23% and SF 16% to 33%.

Economic grievance seems to be the proximate cause of the outgoing government’s demise, and FF copped it for supporting a government which delivered a recovery that only 17% of the population thought made things better for them.

One of the interesting things is the left right placement of the voters (as opposed to the parties themselves) for each party. With the exception of Solidarity PBP and interestingly, the Greens, most peak in the centre (including Sinn Féin).

The overall figure chart shows that the southern electorate have moved significantly to the centre left, which is even the case amongst those voting for independents. The party with the largest proportion of centrist voters is Fianna Fáil.

But it’s in the test for populism that Sinn Fein’s voters really stand out against both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. In answer to the question “most politicians do not care about the people?’ 73% of SF’s vote answered yes.

To the question ‘most politicians only care about the interests of the rich and powerful?’ they scored 83%. There’s clearly some sound economic reasons for why otherwise moderate centrist voters feel like that, but it is a test is for populism.

The last element in the piece is leadership. They report little in the data to suggest leadership popularity particularly influenced the election, other than a late-ish nose dive for Varadkar. Martin finished top, followed by McDonald.

One aspect in the report that surprised me (mostly because I hadn’t thought about it before now) is just how little candidate consideration alone meant to voters in choosing who to vote for, ie just 15%. This compares to 39% in 2016.

Perhaps the national campaign played a much greater role in voter decisions than has traditionally been the case in Irish election. This would have added to FF/FG problems who traditionally rely on candidate selection to do their heavy lifting.

The report notes that those voters for whom local issues trump national ones are not firmly voting independent, thus weakening Fine Gael, but more particularly Fianna Fáil the traditional choice of poorer small farmers.

In their conclusion Cunningham and Marsh write of Sinn Féin’s success:

Sinn Féin may previously may have previously been seen as a party strongly associated with an ethno-nationalist conflict, it’s presence today more closely reflects a typical left wing party with a base of support that tends to be working-class on low incomes and somewhat populist.

Which points towards something that, on the face of it, contradicts one of the key findings of this comprehensive and well-researched analysis by way of offering a provisional explanation for this change in perspective. Brexit mattered.

Brexit was cited by just 8% of voters. Of this 85% were Fine Gael voters responding to its early (failed) attempts to gain credit for closing Brexit before election took place. No FF or Green voters thought it was an issue, and just 8% of SF’s did.

Elsewhere Mary C Murphy considers the disruption Brexit created within Irish politics . The huge effort of within government to get a safe deal may have persuaded FG leaders Brexit still mattered as much to voters as it did to them.

But in reality the indirect factors are far more important to the ultimate outcome. She writes how its shadow hangs right across the surprise success of Sinn Féin and relative failures of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil:

The party’s (SF) core political aim is to achieve Irish unity and although there was no ostensible discussion of unification during the general election campaign, the issue is to the forefront in the Sinn Féin election manifesto.

The drive for unity is specifically like to the ‘controversy and chaos around Brexit’ that the party claims has increased support for a border poll.

I’d add that Mary Lou McDonald’s calls for unity ‘in five years time’ played well into strong nationalist responses in Dublin to Brexiteer rhetoric in London of a kind that hasn’t played a serious role in southern politics since the Belfast Agreement.

This is now so pervasive (from the former Taoiseach and current Minister of Foreign Affairs downwards) I’m not sure how conscious people in the south are of the subsequent normalising and mainstreaming SF’s anti British/Unionist rhetoric.

That’s not to obscure factors covered earlier. Futurologist Stewart Brand notes, sometimes a number of “distant possibles” randomly reinforce each other and cascade a set of remote possibilities into the present. “Surprise is the norm”, he says.

So FG and FF have to hold their nose and work together and hope they can address the social deficits that multiplied during Brexit and a long decade of fiscal austerity which screwed over FF’s traditional base in particular.

Sinn Féin believes it only has to wait. Having doubted their overly optimistic prospectuses in the past, that may well be the case in the next election providing they can convene a viable partnership, even if it is only for a minority coalition.

All I would say is that voter volatility hasn’t gone away you know. Winning may depend on deciphering the secret messages the electorate is sending by fragmenting and weakening the power of those they send to represent them in Dáil Éireann.

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