Brexit Institute News

General Election 2020 – Change and the non Brexit election

Gary Murphy (Dublin City University)

The last decade has been the most historic in Irish electoral life. The Irish party system, once amongst the most stable in modern Europe has been destroyed by the economic crash.

That crash sundered party loyalty. The result has been large swings in the three elections since 2011. The 2011 election was the third most volatile in western Europe since World War Two. The 2020 election was even more volatile.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who have dominated the state since its foundation are now just mere political vehicles seeking votes like anyone else. The other party in the traditional two and a half party system, Labour, is barely alive having paid the price for governing in austere times.

In that context those looking for change turned towards Sinn Féin. The main reason they have done so is because for the first time since Sinn Féin starting contesting elections in the Republic they offered a plausible explanation for being in government.

Younger voters were attracted to its credible position on the crucial housing issue where Mary Lou McDonald said the party would deliver the largest programme of public housing building in the history of the State if elected to government, adding the message that the housing crisis can be sorted.

Fine Gael has gone from 36 per cent of the vote in 2011 to 21 per cent in 2020 and has just 35 of the 160 Dáil seat. Being in government while it brought the spoils of office and the chance to steer the ship of state through rocky waters has been electorally calamitous for it. Its reputation for economic competency simply did not resonate with the electorate given the dire situation of the health and housing crises.

Brexit was never going to be a partisan issue in this election and Fine Gael miscalculated badly by thinking it would be. The electorate has been inured to Brexit. It is far more interested in quality of life issues. Fine Gael’s failure to realise this as the campaign began is an inexplicable failure of political nous.

Fianna Fáil has also suffered due to Brexit. It now has only 38 seats and 22 per cent of the vote. Its leader Micheál Martin has been steadfast in his view that Brexit was such an important issue to the country that it would have been the height of political irresponsibility to pull down the confidence and supply arrangement which kept Fine Gael in power. But Brexit just hasn’t resonated with the voters.

The evidence was in Saturday’s Ipsoso MRBI exit poll when only one per cent of voters said it was the most important decision in deciding their vote. And Brexit of course did not stop the British from having two general elections since in 2017 and 2019.

The Brexit conundrum led to the scenario where there was no issue on which Fianna Fáil would not pull down the government. In that context it suffered in the election as voters simply did not see it as the change agent in Irish politics they were looking for.

With crucial EU – UK trade talks looming all eyes now turn to government formation. Sinn Féin, long Eurosceptic, won 37 seats and received the largest number of votes in the election. It is demanding to be in government. Whether it gets there or not its result in this election has changed Irish politics forever. The consequence of that result has made the next phase of the Brexit negotiations even more problematic.

The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog

Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University

Photo credit: Leinster House by Cathrine Johansson  under a CC BY-ND 2.0 licence