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Ireland was a bemused, confused, and annoyed observer at a UK Parliament struggling to reach any kind of consensus on Brexit. Many didn’t understand how a nation could get itself into such a state of ineffective governance by paralysis – but given the recent inconclusive Irish election result, we too are likely to experience a similar period of uncertainty and frustration, at a time when stable government is so needed and necessary.

Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael

For the past 100 years, Ireland has been governed by either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, both centre right political parties. While both parties routinely formed coalitions or alliances to acquire the magical “overall majority” needed for an effective Government, what was always intriguing, is that those politicos Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael coalesced with, usually had much less in common in terms of political ethos, than Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael had with each other!

In the complicated world of Irish politics, in many ways, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can be likened to the “Pepsi challenge” – they both look similar, they both taste similar, but there are subtle differences between them. In the Ireland in which I grew up, most people aligned with one party or the other, and this usually defined whether your family was pro or anti the Anglo Irish Treaty, and which side your family took in the subsequent bitter and divisive Irish Civil War.

The Pepsi Challenge

So what has changed? Fine Gael, who were the minority Government for the past number of years, and were supported through a “Confidence and Supply” arrangement by their arch rivals Fianna Fáil, faced the electorate in expectation of being rewarded for steering the country through the difficult and protracted period of Brexit negotiations.

Fianna Fáil on the other hand, wondered if the electorate had finally forgiven them for presiding over the economic crash that devastated families, finances and futures a decade earlier.

Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael pointed to the improved and improving finances of the State, and both laid claim to the renewal of prosperity and full employment experienced by many citizens. Most commentators predicted that neither was likely to win an overall majority, but as before, one or other might win enough seats to enter coalition with other parties.

But beneath the surface, all was not well in the State of Ireland. Homelessness, Hospital waiting lists, political scandals, and a realisation by many young people in particular, that they were unlikely to enjoy the prosperity their parents had seen, left many feeling they were collateral damage from the economic crash.

Sinn Féin captured the mood of those who felt that the traditional political parties had failed them. Many who voted for Sinn Féin in this election, would never have considered voting for them before, and may never do so again, but such was the level of dissatisfaction with the main political parties, they did so in droves.

Older voters, with memories of a Sinn Féin party embroiled in the Northern Ireland troubles, struggled to understand this seismic shift to Sinn Féin, but realpolitik and the drive for change, has seen Sinn Féin finish the election with the same number of Parliamentarians as both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – giving us a three way tie and no obvious path to a stable Government.

Ireland has never had a clear Left/Right political divide, but that possibility is now a significant consideration, following Sinn Féin’s dramatic rise, and the potential that they may sometime soon, find themselves in Government on both parts of the Island of Ireland. But the nagging doubt for Sinn Féin must be that all this is just a protest vote, like so many other Referenda rejected before in Ireland, not on the stated content or intent, but on local dissatisfaction with the underlying mood music.

The recent Irish General Election of 2020 should live long in the memory because of the seismic change is has the potential to introduce to Irish society. But Irish political history has borne witness to similar votes for significant change in the past, before that which was promised with such optimism, fizzled and died on the pyre of politicians` broken promises.

It will be interesting to see what occurs over the coming weeks – but be sure of one thing, nothing will ever be quite the same again.

Tommy Martin