John Dolan: A populist vote, yes, but it would be wrong to label SF wave an Irish version of Brexit and Trump polls

John Dolan digests the recent results of the General Election in his weekly column
John Dolan: A populist vote, yes, but it would be wrong to label SF wave an Irish version of Brexit and Trump polls
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald TD with elected TD's & members on the plinth of Leinster House, Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

PHEW, what a week! The political tectonic plates under Ireland have well and truly shifted. Now we have to pick the bones out of it all!

A few thoughts came to mind as I tried to address some of the results of General Election 2020...

This isn’t an Irish populist wave that compares to Brexit and Trump (although there are some similarities!)

Parties commandeering the national flag at triumphalist victory rallies? Check.

Patriotic chest-thumping? Check (‘A nation once again’ could be our version of ‘Make America great again’).

Accusations that many who voted for the winning side are stupid and racist? Check — a theory that was given added weight by the startling fact that Sinn Féin voters are most in favour of tax cuts over investment in public services. Say what?

Grumblings that the result was inconclusive and we may have to do it all again? Check.

There were certainly some uncomfortable similarities between Sinn Féin’s election success last weekend and the recent victories of Donald Trump and the Brexiteers in the UK.

Equally, it could be pointed out that all three were simply examples of the working class going against the mainstream and many elements of the media and registering their dissatisfaction at capitalist inequality: The very definition of ‘populism’.

Certainly, when I saw reports that millions had been wiped from Irish bank values in the wake of Sinn Féin’s surge, I recalled a similar reaction by UK markets to the Brexit vote. My reaction now, as then, is to say, sorry, when it’s a case of democracy versus the markets, I’m with democracy all the way — which side are you on?

And as a Brexit-voting friend told me in 2016, with a carefree shrug: “Markets go up, markets go down...”

(One footnote: If Ireland wasn’t in the euro, the little punt would have taken a real pounding this week, which would have indeed badly affected much of our trade).

But, having listed the similarities, I think it’s unfair to lump the Irish General Election in with Trump and Brexit as proof of a new, populist era — if only for the reason that this was hardly a resounding public surge: Just 24% of first preference votes went Sinn Féin’s way: A historic result, yes, populist, yes... but hardly a ringing endorsement and a long way from a revolution.

Indeed, Sinn Féin may not even end up in government...

Scrap Saturday elections?

A bit like with the future make-up of our national parliament, the jury is still out on whether Saturday is a good day for an election.

The turn-out last weekend was a disappointing 62.9%, the second lowest in living memory.

However, this could be down to the miserable stormy weather, particularly later in the day, and the fact many supporters of the traditional big two parties simply stayed away from the voting stations out of lack of choice.

I reckon the Saturday ballot — the first since 1918 — is worth another go before we revert to the traditional Fridays.

Mary Lou won the battle of the personalities...

Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin scored solid 6 out of 10s on the campaign trail and in the TV debates, but never looked like reaching the level of 8 which the Sinn Féin President consistently maintained.

What Mary Lou McDonald has achieved is remarkable, given her party’s poor polling in the recent presidential, local and European elections, and the fact many of her candidates were unknowns... and some of the known ones have rather chequered pasts.

...but she also slipped up

The failure to run two Sinn Féin candidates in many constituencies, and the failure to even run one in some places, such as Cork North West, proved a costly error by Mary Lou McDonald. It would have made her job of forming a government far easier.

The joke going around here early this week was that even I — an Englishman — could have rode the Mary Lou wave and got a seat in Cork North West! (My shiny new, harp-embossed Irish passport has just arrived, so I have the credentials). Some voters even spoiled the ballot papers in my constituency by simply writing ‘Sinn Féin’ on them.

Levity apart, it was a costly strategic error by the party, and could still mean they do not assume power.

Can Mary Lou keep the lid on the republican wing?

“Does it really matter what these affectionate people do — so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses!”

The line was said to have been uttered by English actress Mrs Patrick Campbell, a close companion of George Bernard Shaw, in reference to gay men.

But it would be sound advice for the Sinn Féin leader to rein in some of her new TDs’ wilder ‘Up the Ra’ antics, so they don’t scare away their new cohort of voters.

This is because the party’s old, republican wing and the new, younger wing, who have just voted for them for the first time, make for strange bedfellows.

Mary Lou’s hardest job in government may prove to be keeping both wings happy — offering a unity poll to the old guard, while ploughing ahead with reforms to housing and health to keep the newbies onside.

Issues such as immigration may become harder circles to square though. Young Sinn Féin voters will favour open borders, while the old guard may be more inclined to revert to nationalist lines.

The green wave was a mere ripple

Wither the Green Party surge?

Climate change has dominated the news agenda for years, yet the party arguably under-performed.

Their good showing in the European and local elections seemed to have them primed for a big win — and their 12 seats in the new Dáil is their best ever general election result by some distance.

But just 6% of voters in the exit poll saw climate change as a priority.

In 2007, the party got nearly 5% of the vote. Thirteen years on, and with portents of doom growing louder by the day, it’s limped to just over 7%.

It would be unduly harsh to suggest Green Party leader Eamon Ryan may come under pressure in the coming months, but he does face a difficult task in convincing voters his is not a single issue party — and that the only way to tackle the single issue is by slapping taxes on everything.

A dearth of leadership qualities?

If Leo Varadkar fell under a bus tomorrow, Simon Coveney would make the smooth transition to Fine Gael leader in a heartbeat.

The same certainly couldn’t be said for either Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.

With the latter, the field would comprise of one likely runner in the often impressive Pearse Doherty. But for Fianna Fáil? Most will not be aware that the Deputy Leader is Dara Calleary.

Micheál is well advised to steer clear of oncoming buses for the foreseeable future.

A final note...

The new government formation is far from certain — we may have to do it all again — but if Sinn Féin do lead it, they deserve a period of grace as they start to tackle some of the pressing issues facing society. Two questions though: When will they scrap the property tax? And will it be backdated?

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