In another plot twist in European politics, the Irish Republic’s general election has redrawn the country’s political landscape.
Where for decades, the balance of power has tilted between two parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, an essential three-way tie seems to have emerged from the elections on 8 February, with Sinn Fein, known for its strong and sometimes violent Irish republicanism, seeing an electoral performance improvement of more than ten percentage points.
Sinn Fein emerged as the most popular single party with nearly a quarter of the vote and 37 seats (up from 23 in the previous election) in the 160-member Irish parliament. Although Fianna Fail came second in terms of support (with 22.2% of the vote), it won 38 seats, down from 44.
The big loser in this election was Leo Varadkar and his Fine Gael party. Varadkar, the incumbent Irish Prime Minister, watched his party’s seats tumble from 50 to 35. Although Varadkar’s stature and prominence have grown over recent years due to the importance of his country’s land border with the United Kingdom amidst the turmoil of the Brexit negotiations, his aggressive positioning on Brexit seems to have failed to convince Irish voters that his minority government deserves to remain in power.
The other 50 seats were split between six other parties and 19 independent candidates.
Where Varadkar’s party stumbled, Sinn Fein, under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald, seems to have managed to attract a slew of young voters, recalling to some extent the unexpected success of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain’s 2017 general election in which Theresa May’s Conservatives lost their majority, with Labour showing itself stronger than many had expected.
Sinn Fein is still far short of a majority and Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have both ruled out working with the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army. One of the three biggest parties will have to cobble together a coalition with the smaller parties, or a grand coalition (with some outside support) will have to be formed between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
Sinn Fein is also a major proponent of Irish reunification and has called for a referendum on the issue. If it succeeds in this it is not implausible that we will see the end of the United Kingdom as we know it in the near future.