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Eilis O'Hanlon

Faced with the choice between Leo's Tweedledum and Micheal's Tweedledee, who can blame voters for giving Mary Lou McDonald a chance?

Eilis O'Hanlon


Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were unable to stop the Sinn Fein bandwagon they helped to start by mollycoddling republicans, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

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A triumphant Mary Lou McDonald during the election count

A triumphant Mary Lou McDonald during the election count

PA

Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar

PA

Micheal Martin

Micheal Martin

PA

A triumphant Mary Lou McDonald during the election count

Historic is overused as a word, but it doesn't take a final tally of seats to appreciate that this election in the Irish Republic has been groundbreaking, with Sinn Fein's share of first preference votes finally going ahead of the two parties who've taken turns to rule the country for the past 100 years.

There are people who will now insist that they saw it coming, but clearly SF didn't, or they'd have run more candidates. Bad as this result is for the two Civil War parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail should be breathing a sigh of relief that it wasn't worse. Sinn Fein will end up with far fewer seats than the total vote merits.

Mary Lou McDonald's party put together a formidable alliance of disenfranchised, economically challenged voters on one hand, and middle class lefties comfortably enough off to not have to worry about the economic effects of flirting with republican socialism on the other.

They were helped in that, ironically, by a co-ordinated establishment backlash against Sinn Fein in the final days of the campaign, which just made them look afraid, and helped to further energise younger voters.

The reasons why are not hard to understand. Fianna Fail was in charge when the financial crash smashed into the country like a thousand Storm Ciaras rolled into one. As soon as voters had their chance to pass judgment on that, they kicked out Fianna Fail, and Fine Gael and Labour swept into power with the biggest majority in the history of the Dail, promising to do things differently.

Then they didn't do things differently, just slavishly followed the austerity programme unjustly imposed on Ireland by Brussels, while expecting struggling voters to be grateful to them for it.

Unsurprisingly, they weren't. At the following election in 2016, Labour was decimated, and FG needed a confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fail in order to stay in power. This time round, voters were therefore faced with the same old choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and decided they'd had enough. Who can blame them?

It was foolish to imagine Ireland would escape the worldwide wave of nationalist populism, not least when the Big Two (at least until this weekend) parties have so little vision or energy. Like Boris - who exploited one stand-out theme, Brexit, to put together a stonking majority in December - Sinn Fein offered the voters some big ideas.

They might be unworkable in practice, but at least they had some. Irish voters, like people everywhere, are tired of the same old, same old, and, when SF says a "cosy consensus" has dominated Irish politics for decades, they're not wrong.

Their opponents in turn failed miserably to explain why those tempted to vote for Sinn Fein should care about the fact that the party is still joined at the hip to the Provisional IRA.

Of course, they ought to care, but they don't, and that's probably not unconnected to the fact that the entire political project for the past 20 years since the Belfast Agreement has been to sell the idea that Sinn Fein in a government in Northern Ireland is a good and progressive and stabilising thing.

Everyone went along with that cunning plan, and yelled down anyone who dared disagree, and now they act surprised that it worked. Shouting "we meant up there, not down here" is a pretty feeble rearguard attempt to halt a bandwagon that they helped get rolling by mollycoddling republicans.

The nastiness of the Brexit debate, which was stoked by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and large parts of the Irish media, also helped make Brit-bashing respectable again, so it did no harm at all to SF that they're better at it than anyone else.

As for Mary Lou, she's an impressive performer and seems to connect with ordinary people on the ground, and, once the sinister shadow of Gerry Adams no longer hung over the party, the pieces were all in place. The Sinn Fein team is articulate and well-groomed, and their concerns - housing, health, austerity - connect with cheesed off voters.

The most telling statistic yesterday was the finding that 63% of people don't feel personally any better off despite supposed improvements in the economy. What more warning was needed? It's worrying that Sinn Fein was the party to catch the wave of disaffection, but the Irish political establishment definitely had it coming.

Famously it's said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Sinn Fein has the poetry part down to a fine art. Their handling of the prosaic duties of government has been less assured in Northern Ireland, and may hamper them when and if they finally get into coalition in Dublin, but for now it's possible for their voters to pretend that Sinn Fein has all the answers.

Whether their success really does mark a sea change in Irish politics remains to be seen. Those with longer memories will remember the so called "Spring tide" of 1992, when the Labour Party, led by Dick Spring, more than doubled its number of seats to 33. Labour surged again in 2011. Each time they fell back quickly, blamed as they were for going into coalition with a bigger party.

That could easily happen to Sinn Fein too. They'll be aware of the danger, and may even be quietly relieved if Fine Gael and Fianna Fail stick to their pledge not to share power with Mary Lou. But what alternatives are there on these numbers?

Either their opponents do the unthinkable, or else stagnation beckons in the form of another confidence and supply agreement which would be a clear rejection of the voters. Stitching up a deal to keep Sinn Fein out after this result ushers in as many dangers as there are from letting them in. The backsliding to make it happen has already begun.

Whatever happens, it would be insanity to think the two Civil War parties will ever get back the dominance they once held. There's been talk of a left/right realignment of Irish politics for decades, and it never quite happens, but perhaps this time it will.

Mainstream politicians still seem unable to catch up with how the financial crash changed everything. All that's left is to decide how the pieces fall.

Sinn Fein would be equally naive to think, though, that this weekend's election helps the cause of Irish unity. The sight of their supporters singing Come Out Ye Black And Tans at the count centre in Dublin on Sunday will simply have confirmed the suspicions of even the most moderate unionists that they're not welcome down south and would be wise to steer clear of whatever it is that's now being beaten into shape in the forge of Irish politics.

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