Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin leader, celebrates on election eve
Ireland’s general election results were historic.
Two key facts — the collapse of the centrist Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties which have dominated Irish politics, and Sinn Féin’s first place finish in the popular vote — grabbed the world’s attention.
Fianna Fáil won just over 22 percent of the vote, finishing with 38 seats in Ireland’s 160-seat parliament. The party which led the outgoing government, Fine Gael, had less than 21 percent support.
These two parties — born out of the divisions which caused the Irish Civil War in 1922-1923 — have held power since the 1930s.
The Irish political system is unique. It is not divided ideologically on left-right lines, and policy differences between the two big players have usually been minimal.
Traditionally, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would capture well over 60 percent of the vote between them in each election.
But as Ireland has urbanised, become more affluent and moved away from its conservative roots, voting patterns have gradually been changing.
In the 2011 general election, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael together had less than 54 percent of the vote.
In 2016, this fell to less than 50 percent.
This time, only 43 percent of Irish people voted for them.
Now, as the two parties contemplate being forced to enter a grand coalition with each other, a striking fact illustrates the transformation which has occurred: even if the two parties enter government together, they still will not have a majority.
The other part of the story is the rise of Sinn Féin, a left-wing and nationalist party whose comrades in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) waged a 30-year armed struggle against Britain.
While the centrist parties were declining, and as memories of the IRA’s terrorist campaign receded, they steadily grew in strength.
In 2011, they won 10 percent of the votes.
In 2016, 14 percent.
Now, 24.5 percent.
Why this dramatic shift now?
Economic and social unrest played a huge role, undoubtedly. Though Ireland has full employment and high growth rates, the headline figures mask a darker reality.
Ireland is more heavily reliant on foreign direct investment — particularly the Big Tech giants — than other European countries. The enormous tax revenues this generates gives an appearance of general prosperity which is in no way representative of the condition of the country as a whole.
With no other major cities to serve as a counterbalance, Dublin’s sprawling growth and poor infrastructure has made it one of the most congested cities in the world.
It has also given rise to a housing crisis which has fuelled public anger and boosted Sinn Féin.
Misguided land use policies, excessive red tape and widespread Nimbyism by those who do not want new housing constructed in their own areas have created a problem with dramatic social and political consequences.
Dublin is now one of the most expensive cities in the world to purchase a home. With no possibility of home ownership, the young are trapped in a rental market which has also seen stunning cost increases.
Widespread home-ownership is one of the surest measures of a stable society where upward economic mobility exists, and where new families can easily be formed.
The situation which now exists in Ireland is highly corrosive to political conservatism, and highly attractive for a leftist party with demotic appeal.
Little wonder then, that in this election Sinn Féin — with its promises of a nationwide rent freeze and a massive state-funded housing programme — was the choice of more than 30 percent of those aged 18-34.
Housing was not the only issue that Sinn Féin won votes on.
At its core, Sinn Féin is virulently nationalist and anti-British. A United Ireland is their number one priority. But the party’s leaders — some of them ex-IRA Godfathers lurking menacingly in the shadows — are clever enough not to over-emphasise Irish unity at the expense of bread-and-butter economic issues.
In principle, they are ideologues, but in practice they are anything but.
While most of the Left favours carbon taxes, Sinn Féin adamantly opposes them, and won many new votes in rural areas because of this.
They also promised to abolish property tax while slashing tax on low earners and massively increasing spending.
None of this is deliverable, but to a desperate cohort, it is certainly attractive.
‘Social issues’ did not play a major role in this election, but they have played a major role in the decline of the old Establishment which embraced a radical social agenda before finding out that it did not profit them at all.
In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by referendum, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s leadership supporting the move enthusiastically.
In 2018, the parties’ leaders wholeheartedly campaigned for abortion-on-demand. Since then, two more pointless referendums have taken place: one to abolish the old blasphemy law and the other to liberalise divorce laws.
These votes were in part designed to close a door on Catholic Ireland and usher in a progressive era where Ireland would be a shining example of social liberalism.
In 2018, the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who had just a few years earlier presented themselves as being pro-life, cynically calculated that supporting abortion would endear them to a new generation of voters.
This election showed clearly that it has not.
In addition to failing to win younger and more liberal voters, both parties have forfeited the votes of many socially conservative Irish people who had faithfully voted Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil for decades before being made politically homeless.
Apart from being futile, this strategy showed the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Establishment’s approach.
The role of a conservative political party is to cherish a nation’s historical identity and maintain its institutions, while occasionally making necessary changes to adapt to new circumstances.
Neither of Ireland’s centrist political parties are conservative. Instead of honouring the past, they traduced it, and did everything to distance themselves from their own traditional voters.
They richly deserved this collapse.
Now, the two parties will struggle to put together a coalition government, along with another party such as the Greens. If such a government is formed, it will not last long.
Sinn Féin — along with the smaller left-wing parties who also did well and now hold another two dozen seats between them — smell blood. Another election, a real possibility now, will only bring further gains.
Ireland will soon have a left-led government with Sinn Féin at the helm, bringing with it alarming consequences for all of us.
And it has all come about because of the people whose job it was to prevent this.
James Bradshaw works for an international consulting firm based in Dublin, and has a background in journalism and public policy. Outside of work, he writes for a number of publications, on topics including politics, history, culture, film and literature.