It would not be an exaggeration to describe this general election as one of the most extraordinary in the history of the state. The only comparable one I can think of is the 1948 election which led to the participation of Clann na Phoblacta in government but their advance was nothing compared to that of Sinn Féin.
Which begs the question; where did the increase in the Sinn Féin vote come from? Recall that in May last year they got less than 10% of the vote in the local elections and lost 78 seats, almost half of what they had previously. Their candidate in the Presidential elections before that, Liadh Ní Riadh got less than 7% and she lost her seat in the European Parliament on the same day as the local elections. That reverse was linked to their extremely poor record on local authorities like Dublin City Council. Some of those failed council candidates, just months later, are now TDs.
Now Sinn Féin are the most popular party in the state, in the country actually including the north, and took almost a quarter of the vote. Only their own low expectations and not standing more candidates prevented them from winning over 50 seats. As it is, they may very well still be the biggest party in terms of seats won. We will not know that until the later stages of the counts.
So what explains the turnaround?
Some of it was clearly down to ineptitude on the part of the government. There were Fine Gael ministers with obviously better instincts than Leo who were clamouring for an election before Christmas. That was at a time when they looked like international statespeople over the Brexit issue. Curiously, Brexit was only a factor for 2% of those who voted on Saturday according to an exit poll whereas it was probably the main political issue in people’s minds three months ago.
There are also indefinable things that make people decide which way to vote, and as recent results have proved that does not imply loyalty to any particular party.
Most of those who voted for Sinn Féin on Saturday never voted for them before and may never do so again. We no longer live in a country where political allegiances are passed on in the DNA.
Some of the indefinables were the scooping up of that poor man sleeping in a tent on the canal; stories of old people forgotten on hospital trollies; the horrific murder of the young man from Drogheda, and the optics of the televised leaders debate where it looked like a smaller woman was being hectored by two big men.
That is what many people took from that, rather than the valid points made regarding Sinn Féin’s equivocation over the horrific murder of Paul Quinn. Dessie Ellis took not much less than 50%. That is a vote of Charlie Haughey dimensions.
Possibly the most significant and random of the factors was the controversy over the proposal to commemorate members of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
Irish people are strange, as are all people. The combination of factors like housing and hospitals somehow merged with an historical memory that viscerally rejected the notion of the smug Fine Gael ministers proposing to celebrate the Black and Tans -even though that was not exactly what they were proposing.
Everyone in Ireland almost has a Black and Tan story from their family history, some of them more imagined than actual no doubt, but even the term resonates. And of course the history of the RIC is not the same as the Tans. Nevertheless it was massive error on the part of Charlie Flanagan to suggest such a thing and it obviously tapped into some folk memory that ultimately benefitted Sinn Féin.
Where to now will be interesting. Despite the romance and the historical associations, Sinn Féin is now a tame middle of the road party with an “interesting past.” Its record over ten years in coalition with the DUP in Stormont proves that it is not some far left threat – nor any longer a republican nationalist party. It is, however, a party with a sinister record of internal intimidation and external threats against others.
It is also a party that ticks all the mainstream boxes on cultural politics. It is entirely possible that Sinn Féin will be in government now. What happens next shall be interesting.