Europe Politics

Sinn Fein's election surge points to an 'unprecedented' political future for Ireland

Willem Marx and George Bextor
Key Points
  • Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are all projected to win more than 20% of the national vote based on results from the roughly one third of constituencies that have completed their counting.
  • Several of the country's leading political scientists have told CNBC that this inconclusive result heralds the end of a two-party system that has effectively dominated the republic for decades.
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald speaks to members of the media as she canvasses for support in Dublin on February 6, 2020, ahead of the February 8 General Election.
BEN STANSALL

DUBLIN — Ireland's drawn-out election count has failed to produce either a clear winner or any immediately obvious coalition partnerships, based on the latest figures available on Monday morning.

But as fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh order preferences continue to be sorted and totted up across the final few constituencies today, an exit poll released late Saturday has remained largely accurate and the top three parties will finish very close after a tight race, regardless of the outcome in any outstanding seats.

Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are all projected to win more than 20% of the national vote based on results from the roughly one third of constituencies that have completed their counting, and several of the country's leading political scientists have told CNBC that this inconclusive result heralds the end of a two-party system that has effectively dominated the republic for decades.

The two centrist parties that between them have traditionally won the vast majority of the combined vote share, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, have both lost major electoral ground to Sinn Fein, a largely left of center party that has long prioritized reunification of the Irish Republic with the neighboring U.K. nation of Northern Ireland.

Brendan O'Leary, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and former advisor to both British and Irish governments, told CNBC that Sinn Fein's presence in a new government would not automatically put Irish reunification on the agenda during the lifespan of Dublin's new Parliament.

But he pointed to shifting demographics in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland's increasingly resilient economy and the cross-border economic integration encouraged by a Brexit that's proven unpopular in the North as factors that would, taken together, "make it more likely that there will be a peaceful and democratic reunification" before 2030.

Under the terms of a 1998 peace deal in Northern Ireland, known as the Good Friday Agreement, separate referenda in favor of a united Ireland are required both north and then south of the border for the century-old territorial partition to be reconsidered.

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'Tough day' for Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael as Irish election results confirmed

In a sign of the political upheaval that Saturday's vote has generated elsewhere, Leo Varadkar, the current prime minister, or Taoiseach, to use his Irish title, had to struggle awkwardly through multiple rounds of vote preference counts, before he could confirm his own personal re-election in his West Dublin constituency behind Sinn Fein's top candidate. Many of his senior cabinet colleagues from Fine Gael faced their own uncertain races in their respective constituencies, and still others lost their seats.

Ireland's electoral system, proportional representation with a single transferable vote, elects an average of four parliamentarians from each of the country's 39 constituencies, and this has left its recent history littered with coalition governments. The last general election in 2016 also ended with no clear winner, and it took a record-breaking 10 weeks of talks to form a new government.

But experts say that this time, with three parties set to win a roughly equal share of the vote, even political actors open to the idea of power sharing in some form may be charting fresh territory.

"It's unprecedented in many ways," says O'Leary, who has studied the dynamics of power-sharing in Ireland for decades. "There's plenty of experience in coalition government, some experience in minority government, but no experience of equally matched parties."

Mary Lou McDonald, head of Sinn Fein, has implied she will seek to take the lead in the formation of a new government. In comments reported by the Irish Times, she insisted she would "talk to and listen to everybody" in other parties, because that's what "democracy demands."

Sinn Fein ran far fewer candidates than it was entitled to put forward, but there were nevertheless many reasons for the party's surprising success at the ballot box, analysts say, particularly their focus on domestic issues like housing and health care.

"There are deep and persistent problems" when it comes to Ireland's structural spending priorities, according to John O'Brennan, professor of European integration at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. He says the Fine Gael-led coalition government under Varadkar has struggled to combat the legacy of austerity, particularly among voters living in or close to the capital Dublin. Add to that the growing levels of concern around childcare and commuting costs, and there follows what he termed "almost a perfect storm against the sitting government."

Varadkar has already insisted, repeatedly, that cooperation with Sinn Fein is "not an option" for his Fine Gael party, since their respective views on the economy, democracy and the criminal justice system are "not compatible."

But his leading political foil, a former foreign secretary and the current head of Fianna Fail, Micheal Martin, has not yet publicly ruled out a potential tie-up with Sinn Fein, an indication that he is still weighing his options, and could consider a "sustainable and deliverable" agreement if it might allow him to form a majority in the lower house of the country's Parliament, or Oireachtas.

There are multiple potential routes to a parliamentary majority, involving several other, smaller parties, and the complexity of those options means that the political paralysis could last for several weeks while the various leaders try to match up party restrictions with parliamentary arithmetic.