And so, at last, the silliest day in Irish politics has dawned again.
Across the country this afternoon, candidates and canvassers will be making a final push for votes. Partisans on the internet will be wearing out their keyboards, furiously tweeting out last minute arguments designed ostensibly to persuade others, but in reality, to keep their own spirits up.
Political parties will be trying anything they can to reach those last, few, largely mythical undecided voters. And the broadcast media have to pretend, by law, that none of it is happening.
They – RTE, Newstalk, Virgin Media, and the rest – can’t talk about the thing everybody else is talking about. It’s one of those absurd Irish laws that everyone supports, but nobody can really justify – like the law banning you from buying alcohol in a Supermarket before midday on a Sunday, or the one preventing you from safely turning left at a traffic light regardless of light colour.
Inside a campaign, moratorium day is a strange time. In reality, at the back of their minds, everybody knows that it is, for all intents and purposes, over. There’s not much more you can do. There’s no brand-new argument that can be introduced today that’s going to influence the thinking of the voters. All that’s left to do is to work as hard as you can to make sure that your own voters get out and vote. Many candidates, especially in urban seats where a lot of voters are concentrated in one place, will be planning late night leaflet drops, with nice letters wishing voters a good morning and asking for their vote one last time. Most of them will go straight in the bin, but it provides a real sense for people involved that they’re doing something – anything – that might influence the result.
For the rest of us, today is a chance to pause and come to terms with the choice before us, and the consequences of the likely result. For all the shouting and the roaring about Sinn Fein, the polls and the pundits are clear about one thing: Fianna Fáil is likely to emerge, some time on Sunday afternoon, as comfortably the largest party in the next Dáil.
By any objective analysis, if it comes to pass, it will be an extraordinary political resurrection. Fianna Fáil last held office just under a decade ago. When it was swept from power after overseeing the most devastating economic collapse since the famine, it was widely speculated that the party might never recover. For the past four years, it has been badly hamstrung in opposition, an easy target for competitors on the opposition benches because of its commitment to keep the Fine Gael government in power. The decision to prop up Mr. Kenny, and then Mr. Varadkar, is one that Fianna Fáil would like to portray as a purely patriotic one, but cynics might suggest that having overachieved expectations in the 2016 election, the party was not keen to risk its newfound gains on a second election held soon thereafter. Either way, it has been unable to fully exploit the weaknesses of the present Government, and has been objectively hamstrung, especially compared to Sinn Fein, as a result.
The Party’s likely success in this election can really be put down to two things. The first is the electoral system itself. Sinn Fein, by running only 43 candidates, has put a hard cap on its own potential success. Fianna Fail is running almost twice that number. In many constituencies, Sinn Fein can only win one seat, regardless of how many votes it gets. Fianna Fail, by having more candidates, will be able to turn fewer votes into a far higher seat count. If, as many seem to suspect, there has been a late swing away from Sinn Fein, causing that party to drop a little from its recent polling highs, FF is the most likely beneficiary. It’s conceivable, on a good day, that the party could turn a vote share in the low to mid 20’s into 60 seats.
The second, and more important thing, has been that Fianna Fáil has run a very good general election campaign. The party has focused on relatively simple messages – that a change of Government is needed, and that only it can lead such a change of Government, as well as a simple policy focus on workable solutions to health and housing.
The latter point has gone largely unremarked upon, but a core strength of the Fianna Fáil campaign is that the party has been able to answer policy questions with simple, memorable, practical solutions. For example, the party’s policy to invest heavily in the national treatment purchase fund has been opposed by everybody else, but the message that the party can use this policy to cut waiting lists quickly will strike many voters as simple common sense. If that policy doesn’t deliver a lot of number one votes, it will stand to FF in what are certain, this time, to be crucial and volatile later counts.
The party also benefits from having, broadly speaking, the strongest list of candidates of any party in the election. A couple of good council elections have provided it with a strong bench, and many of its candidates are popular locally, which may be one reason the party over-performs the polls significantly in rural Ireland, in particular.
Fianna Fáil is also likely to benefit in one other, largely unremarked-upon way. For a large section of the electorate, it remains the least offensive of the main parties by some distance. While Aontu and the smaller, fringe nationalist parties may take the 3-4% of the vote between them, most opposed to cultural liberalism, there are a far greater number of voters who have a mild distaste for the socio-cultural agenda that has animated Fine Gael over the past four years. Uniquely amongst the main parties, Fianna Fáil’s manifesto contains very little of that flavour, and the party has a strong core of culturally conservative TDs who will draw votes that are unavailable to others, and transfers from conservative independents in rural Ireland. A good portion of the Aontu, and fringe nationalist vote, will also find its way back to FF.
And so, a decade after he was drummed out of Government, and 31 years after he first entered the Dáil, where he has been for longer than many voters have been alive, Micheál Martin is likely to be Ireland’s next Taoiseach. What he will do with the office is a mystery, something that in truth even most Fianna Fáil supporters don’t know. One suspects of Martin that whatever deals are necessary to get him into the seat to the left of the Ceann Comhairle will be made without much of a second thought. He will lead a Government, having campaigned well to win the privilege.
We just don’t yet know if it will be a Green Government, a Labour Government, a Social Democrat Government, or a Healy-Rae Government.
Let us hope for the latter, and be surprised by nothing.
A prediction, for what it’s worth, which is not much:
Soc Dem: 4