Since the end of the civil war, two main parties have been in power in the Republic of Ireland: Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. The two parties’ policies have, over time, become increasingly similar to the point where today the two parties are near identical ideologically. The 2020 election showed a major turning point in public opinion on the political establishment with Sinn Féin winning a majority of the popular vote. This forced Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to enter into a coalition government with the Green Party, which didn’t help the new government’s popularity. Since then the track record of the government has been full of controversy and their popularity is currently at an all-time low with Sinn Féin topping the polls and the Green party on the verge of collapse due to an internal struggle between the environmentalist faction and the leadership of the party. But how did we get here, and what has led to the fall of Ireland’s main two parties?
A lot of the woes faced by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael can be traced back to the 2008 recession. The Fianna Fail party are usually blamed for the severity of the recession, with their party members being seen as in the pockets of the banks and Fine Gael are blamed for their poor handling of the recession afterwards. The imposition of austerity measures introduced, such as the famous water charges, was very unpopular with many people in Ireland. Both parties are also finding themselves blamed for the current housing crisis, which had been looming since the late 90s. All of this had come to a head in 2019 with homelessness being one of the hottest issues in the country, which was capitalised on successfully by left and right-wing parties. Going into an election this was a terrible look for Fine Gael, and Fianna Fail had not yet realized how much it would affect their election campaign.
As the election campaign kicked off many predicted the usual change of power from one party to the next with very little change. This, however, would not be the case as Sinn Féin began to pick up traction and eventually began regularly polling at the same level or above the two main parties, and smaller parties such as the Social Democrats and the Green Party also gained some traction. When the fateful day came on the eighth of February, the mood was tense as exit polls showed the three parties of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, and Sinn Féin within a margin of 0.2% of each other. And as the votes were counted, it became clear that Sinn Féin were candidates getting the most first preference votes all over the country and the Party eventually gained fifteen seats, while both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail lost twelve and seven seats respectively. This was a victory for Sinn Féin, with the party winning the largest share of the popular vote.
The COVID-19 pandemic stalled government formation and a coalition agreement would not be decided until June with the Green Party entering into a coalition with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. This did not sit well with many, especially the Green Party itself, with the Northern Irish Green Party leader Claire Bailey coming out in opposition to this agreement. She said the coalition deal proposed the “most fiscally conservative arrangements in a generation”. The Green Party to this day continues to be unstable with party members increasingly unhappy with the little to no progress on Green Party campaign promises and many fearing the collapse of the Green vote in Ireland. Sinn Féin would enter into opposition which may end up playing directly into their hands in the next election, as some say they would have been in government if they had run more candidates. Being in opposition without one of the main two parties allows them to be the main voice against the government and with them not having to deal with COVID-19, Brexit, and the economic situation after that it leaves the possibility open for them to make even more gains in the next election. The duo of Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty has also proven to be very popular among many voters – with Mary Lou coming across as a relatable person to some, and Pearse Doherty being able to combat the government with his use of statistics and figures.
This leaves open an opportunity for Sinn Féin to be in the next Irish government which could spell trouble for Anglo-Irish relations, and for the Prime Minister of the UK who will be in office at such a time. If the current government doesn’t get some serious work done on the crisis’ Ireland faces, the prospect of a Sinn Féin led government and the full collapse of the Irish political establishment is all but inevitable.