Varadkar’s election gamble backfires as Sinn Fein surge

10 February 2020

5:55 AM

10 February 2020

5:55 AM

Irish election results are being counted and it seems that Leo Varadkar’s snap election gamble has worked out as badly as Theresa May’s. Support for his party, Fine Gael, has plunged and a Sinn Fein surge has changed everything. Varadkar has just made history by being the first Taoiseach to be be denied first place in his own constituency, beaten by a Sinn Fein candidate. Under the Irish system, between three and five representatives are returned for each seat – so Varadkar is back. But as what? He is now talking being “part of” a new government but will only stay as party leader “if my party will have me.”

And what about Brexit, and the idea of his robust stance boosting his popularity at home – alongside his handling of the economy? Irish voters, it seems, were not as impressed as he thought they’d be. “Others took the view that the economy would look after itself and that the Brexit talks would look after itself,” he glumly admitted to RTE radio.

The exit poll (and results so far) suggest that Sinn Fein, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail had the same amount of support. An astonishing turnaround for Sinn Fein who were on 15 per cent to Fine Gael’s 29 per cent just a few months ago. The polls had pointed to Simm Fein suirge and, for once, they were right.

Paschal Donohoe, Varadkar’s finance minister, downplayed the idea that his often–austere budgets were to blame and complained about more “similarities to European results than we have seen in other elections”. You can certainly see similarities to Britain’s last election. The decline of political tribalism, for example, allowed mass defections from Team Varadkar to Sinn Fein. There’s also a Corbynesque effect of young urban voters switching to Sinn Fein, not being put off by associations with an IRA that they can barely remember. Sinn Fein has served up Corbynesque policies: a three-year rent freeze, a pledge to build 100,000 houses, a tax credit offering a month’s rent cashback. For young parents, it promises to cut childcare costs by two-thirds. And to pay for it all a tax on (you guessed it) the rich and the banks. A new wealth tax, more inheritance tax etc.

Sinn Fein only fielded 42 candidates – so has no chance of winning the 80 seats needed for government. Its best bet, now, may be to sit this out and see if Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will get together and form a ‘grand coalition’ – then sit back, be upgraded to the status of main opposition, and wait for a government of losers to struggle. And hope that the Sinn Fein surge doesn’t go the same was as Labour’s Gilmore gale ten years ago.

Michael Martin seems to have worked out that it would be better if he dipped Sinn Fein’s hands in blood (so to speak) and got them into government – he is quickly backtracking on what had been outright opposition to this.

But Mary Lou McDonald,Sinn Fein’s leader (who topped the poll in Dublin Central) looks unlikely to take the bait, saying that Ireland needs rid of both of these parties and that she won’t enter coalition with either. Varadkar has sounded open to talks not just with Fianna Fail but not Sinn Fein.

The night is young, there’s a lot more counting to do and results to announce. I’ve been listening to every result that comes in, and it has a sound: silence, as the results of various candidates are read out. Then a huge cheer as a Sinn Fein vote turns out to be far bigger than anyone expected. Even in places like Tipperary, one of many supposedly SF-resistant places that crumbled like Labour’s red wall.

So century-old duumvirate of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail has just ended. “It seems that we have now a three-party system,” Varadkar said earlier, which will “make forming a government quite difficult”. There even might be another election, as in 1927. But for now, the shape of the next Irish government is anyone’s guess.

“It seems that we have now a three-party system … and that is going to make forming a government quite difficult,” says Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar #GE2020

— RTÉ News (@rtenews) February 9, 2020

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