Government 2020: The one certain thing is that nothing is certain

The count may well go on for days.  The Government formation talks may run for many weeks.  What is clear is that in relation to the make-up of the next administration, nothing is clear.

The Sinn Féin surge has confirmed a change in the political landscape in terms of voter sentiment. What is not clear yet is whether this will bring about significant change in the political landscape in terms of public policy.

First, the changing public sentiment: Sinn Féin has almost doubled its political support, going from 13.9% of the first preference vote in 2016, to 24.5% now. It did so having been best known for a long time for its role as the political wing of the IRA, and running on a solidly left-wing platform apart from some populist, non left-wing elements such as abolishing property tax.

Will this lead to public policy change? One of the political questions asked repeatedly by business in recent years and throughout the campaign is whether Sinn Féin could get into government. Corporate decision-makers – particularly those based outside the country – have expressed concern for some time at the significant support held by a party which talks about taxing FDI business more heavily, freezing rents, and stating other left-wing positions.

 A Sinn Féin entry into government must now be seen as a real possibility, and therefore any government would of course include elements of Sinn Féin policy.  We have seen, however, in Northern Ireland that Sinn Féin is a pragmatic party, not unlike Fianna Fáil.  Pre-election denunciations of Sinn Féin as Marxists ideologues is very wide of the mark.  Any programme for government in which it may be involved would be likely to be similar those of left of centre social democratic regimes elsewhere in Europe.

Counting continues this morning (Monday February 10th) and political leaders are beginning to state early positions about who they will and won’t talk to about forming the next government.  This being politics, some of those early positions will change.

Fine Gael says it won’t go into government with Sinn Féin, and observers believe them.  The party’s deputy leader Simon Coveney also said yesterday that he did not expect his party to support a confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil either.  Such an arrangement would be a reverse of the 2016-20 deal in which Fianna Fáil, while outside government, supported the government on key votes and in effect kept it in power.  So, for Fine Gael, it seems, it is either a grand coalition with Fianna Fáil, or opposition.

Fianna Fáil seems less sure, with some senior party figures suggesting they are open to the Sinn Féin coalition option.  The party leader Michael Martin was vehement in ruling out this option during the campaign.  However yesterday he answered questions about it cryptically – instead of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, he spoke about listening to the people and also about how political positions don’t change overnight. He did not explain what, if anything, he meant by this, however post-election statements of intent to “listen to the people” are often precursors to u-turns on previously stated positions.

The Sinn Féin leader’s opening position is that she will first talk to parties other than Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael such as the Green Party, Labour and Social Democrats.  The numbers do not allow for a government involving only Sinn Féin and these parties. Ultimately, she would have to talk to Fianna Fáil if her party is to be in government.  However, she could seek to bring one or more of the Green Party, Labour or Social Democrats with her.

Simple arithmetic suggests that if we are to avoid another election in 2020, there are two options:   Either a government kept in power by the combined support of the two large centre parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael; or one involving a combination of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.  In each case, the combination would still be shy of the 80 votes required to have a Dáil majority (perhaps 77 for FF/FG and 78 for FF/SF).  They could consider bringing one or more of the smaller parties with them, or failing that the support or abstention of a couple of independents – happy to avoid another election any time soon – should be achievable for either.

If Sinn Féin ends up in opposition to a centrist Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition, they will have several years in which to position themselves as the leader of populist opposition to a conservative government, and thereby to grow their support even further.  The two main parties will be conscious of this possibility to in the post-election manoeuvrings.

For those wishing to analyse the arithmetic, best seat projections as of now are:  Fianna Fáil (41); Sinn Féin (37); Fine Gael (36); Green Party (11); Labour (6); Social Democrats (6); Solidarity/People Before Profit (4); and Independents and others (19). As stated, counting resumes this morning, and there are likely to be one or two surprises as the later counts unfold.

The Sinn Féin rise from 13.9% to 24.5% seems to have come from a variety of sources. Fianna Fáil is down from 24.3% to 22.2%; Fine Gael from 25.5% to 20.9%; Labour down from 6.6% to 4.4%; the Social democrats down from 3% to 2.9%; and independents and others down from 20% to 15.4%.  The Green Party had a very good election too, though its rise from 2.7% to 7.1% has perhaps achieved less notice than it should because the Sinn Féin rise has been so pronounced.

So, we seem likely to be at the outset of an unpredictable few weeks of negotiations.  The key guiding principle to understanding what is going to happen is to take stated opening positions with a pinch of salt.


Mark Brennock is Director of Public Affairs at Murray