Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald received the most votes in the Dublin parliament to become Taoiseach on Thursday, the first time a TD not supported by either of the two main parties has done so in the history of the 26 County state.
All four candidates for Taoiseach fell short of winning the vote. Ms McDonald had the support of her party’s 37 TDs, as well as a grouping of five left-wing TDs and three independents, giving her a total of 45. She was opposed by the combined votes of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party: 84 in total, with 29 abstentions.
Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar had 36 votes to 107 against, while Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin won 41 votes with 97 against. Martin had the support of three independents, while a sole independent also voted for both Martin and Varadkar.
With Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael remaining opposed to the involvement of Sinn Féin in government regardless, and the Labour Party still showing disinterest, the arithmetic of the new Leinster House parliament has been clarified. Ms McDonald’s clear route to the Taoiseach’s office is with the additional support of the Green Party TDs, the Social Democrats and nine other TDs -- a tall order, but not impossible.
Earlier in the day, the Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) of the Dáil -- Fianna Fail TD Sean O Fearghail -- was returned to the position, confirming Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil are equally the joint largest parties in the chamber, with 37 TDs each.
Ms McDonald congratulated her party’s new TDs, who walked together into Leinster House in a day of celebration for their families. She said her party was “representing the hopes of over half a million people who voted for our party and the hundreds of thousands of others who voted for change.”
But in the Dáil on Thursday night, there were blistering exchanges, with Ms McDonald coming under concerted attack from Micheal Martin before she accused the Fianna Fáil leader of having a “bitter and narrow mind” over his continuing refusal to share power.
Mr Martin said: “Deputy McDonald has confirmed she does not accept any of our criticisms of her party’s standards and practices. We simply do not agree. This is not simply about the past – the past is important and Sinn Féin’s efforts to legitimise a murderous sectarian campaign keeps alive a narrative which is used by dissidents to legitimise their campaign”.
Ms McDonald responded with her own forceful criticisms. She said: “If Micheal Martin is concerned about the democratic principles of my party, I am deeply concerned about a leader that sat at a Cabinet table with people who were subsequently charged with corruption. I have a problem with that. I think most reasonable people have a problem with that. Sinn Féin lives rent free in Micheal Martin’s narrow and bitter mind. I do not care what Fianna Fáil thinks about my party.”
On Friday, Varadkar and Martin moved quickly to arrange talks on forming a government. Their discussions will have been influenced by a poll which showed support for Sinn Féin has now reached a stratospheric 35% amid mounting public disgust at the manner at which the political establishment continues to marginalise republicans.
Even a historic ‘grand coalition’ between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who have their roots as rivals in Ireland’s civil war, would still fall short of a majority in the Dáil and would still need the support of one of more left-wing parties to be viable, most likely the Green Party.
A lot now hinges on the direction of travel of the Greens. Party leader Eamon Ryan said he wanted to talk to all parties this week regarding their policies and would not get “bogged down” on a single option.
“If it is just a veneer, we won’t go in. It is as clear as that. Our own members would have to decide but I don’t think we would or should,” he said.
Leinster House is now adjourned until March 5. If no Taoiseach is selected during that session, the current government will carry out the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day junkets.
Ms McDonald said the choice remains “between a government for change, or a grand coalition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael”.
“The overwhelming majority of people voted for change, they voted for a new government and that is what they expect to be delivered,” she said.
“Despite the rejection of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s record over the past four years, they are now looking for a carve-up of political power that is about keeping them in office and blocking change.
“Any such proposal flies in the face of what people voted for and does not represent change.”