A sense of crisis has gripped the Irish ruling classes after Sinn Féin nearly tripled its vote in last weekend’s election to Leinster House and took the first steps in the formation of a new government in Dublin.
Sinn Féin took a shock 24.5% of votes cast, compared to 9.5% in the local elections just nine months ago, and went from 22 TDs in 2016 to 37 now.
Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have moved to shut down any possibility of change by repeating their vows to keep Sinn Féin out of power. Both parties are now looking to put together another pact for joint governance in collaboration with a smaller party or independents, with the fallback plan that and if all else fails, they will engineer another election.
Fianna Fáil won 37 seats in the election, the same number as Sinn Féin but with the addition of the automatically returned Ceann Comhairle [Speaker], to reach 38, down 7. Fine Gael ended on 35, down 12. The smaller parties reached 30 between them, and there are 20 independents.
Eoin Ó Broin, one of Sinn Féin’s coalition negotiators, admitted on Friday that after several days of talks, a left-wing coalition couldn’t be achieved.
The lingering hope of a radically new government was rendered impossible by a decision of the Labour Party to remain on the opposition benches. Brendan Howlin, announcing his resignation as party leader on Thursday, said the party’s TDs had accepted the view that the party did not have a mandate to take part in government.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin is now pursuing a return to government with Fine Gael, even though that idea appeared to be strongly rejected by voters. He is looking to form a formal “grand” coalition with Fine Gael, but has also repeatedly suggested the idea of re-running the election.
Mr Ó Broin accused the Fianna Fáil leader of acting irresponsibly: “He’s talking about putting back in power the government that has just been booted out of power and he is threatening another election at a time when the public want politicians to do their job, form a government for change and start fixing the problems that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael created through four years of bad government.”
Mr Ó Broin said political parties refusing to talk to Sinn Féin and who were threatening elections smacked of “arrogance” and “recklessness”.
People “can’t wait” for the housing and health crisis to be resolved, he said. “It is very clear that the only stable government is going to involve two of the larger parties.”
Despite “huge policy differences” between Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil, the “only responsible thing to do for any party is to sit down with and to talk” with all other parties, Mr Ó Broin said.
The Dublin Mid-West TD said Sinn Féin was still awaiting a formal response from Mr Martin ruling out coalition talks.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the idea of a FF/FG grand coalition would be “a slap in the face” for an electorate which voted for change. She said it was disgraceful that “the Old Boys Club” would seek to set aside the democratic mandate” of Sinn Féin and the wishes of the electorate.
Meanwhile, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael show clear signs of remaining in campaign mode, while elements of the media also remained in open attack against Sinn Féin.
Mr Martin warned that another general election “could not be ruled out” and that the country “needs a government that can radically change”.
Taoiseach and party leader Leo Varadkar denounced Sinn Féin’s attempts to form what he described as “socialist republican” government. He continued to engaged in attacks on Sinn Féin TDs in internet posts.
And in an email to party members, there was no resiling by Varadkar from the disastrous policies which created the current housing and health crises.
“In the fullness of time, history will judge the last government more kindly than the electorate has,” Varadkar declared, adding: “Given how volatile politics is, it can all change again, and quickly, and in our favour.”
At a first meeting for Sinn Féin TDs in Dublin, a journalist from the Daily Mail with family connections to Fianna Fáil went into attack mode, attempting to interrupt the meeting in the name of the “free press” and shouting out a question about the salaries of Sinn Féin TDs. He failed to turn up for the scheduled question-and-answer session later.
A concern for Sinn Féin is that the political and media establishment may believe that the February election was merely a protest, and that a ‘real’ vote will produce a return to normal voting patterns. The party leadership has been warning its newly elected TDs that votes not to lose votes through a gaffe or misconstrued statement.
However, many believe that another election could allow Sinn Féin to field more candidates and return it to an even stronger position than it is in now. That is certainly what is now driving the two main parties together, despite their history of enmity.
Galway TD Éamon Ó Cuív, a grandson of Rising leader and Fianna Fáil founder Éamon de Valera, could quit as a result. He is often associated with Fianna Fáil’s historical link to republicanism.
“Fianna Fáil intends to go into coalition with Fine Gael and the Greens,” he revealed after a meeting of his party’s parliamentary prty. “If you look at the figures, that’s the only option that gives you a majority ... I’m against that, completely against that, and I made that known at the meeting.”
The process of forming a government took two months in 2016. Some commentators have indicated that a similar timespan might be needed this time also.