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1 March 2016

Where next for the Republic of Ireland?

What happened - and where do the Republic's politics go from here?

By siobhan fenton

Regardless of individual political quirks, parliamentary procedures, or cultural customs elections around the world are invariably united by one thing- that someone wins them. However, Ireland seems to have bucked this truism in astonishing and chaotic fashion this weekend as its general election appears to have produced no real winner.

Rather, the vote seems to have fractured so chaotically along a horizontal axis that the vote share is distributed between a large number of parties and independents of no party at all. How we have arrived at this point is due to a rise in protest votes after extreme anti-government sentiment wrought by austerity, rapid cultural shifts in Ireland and the PR voting system almost collapsing in on itself.

The key feature of Ireland’s electoral past is that it has three main parties which traditionally govern. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are centre right parties, whilst Labour stands on the centre left. Due to the country using the Single Transferable Vote system – a form of proportional representation – instead of first past the post, coalition governments are common between the three as two parties tend to pair-up to command enough votes to implement a government programme together. 

However, for the first time, none of “the big three” have enough support to govern on their own, or as even a pair. This means that the government may now have to be formed of a grand-coalition messily pieced together from a number of parties and independents, or else rule by minority government. Either scenario is not expected to be tenable in the long term, with local pundits anticipating a second election will have to be called before the end of 2016. 

How the situation seems to have arisen is that rather than being divided between the “big three” parties, electoral support has fractured across eight parties, as well as a considerable number of independent politicians. Support for the parties now stands at Fine Gael 25 per cent, Fianna Fáil 24 per cent, Sinn Féin 13 per cent, Independent politicians 17 per cent, Labour six per cent, Anti-Austerity-Alliance-People-Before-Profit four per cent, Social Democrats three per cent, Greens three per cent, Renua two per cent. 

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Ireland has experienced brutal austerity since the global economic crash. Child poverty has doubled under the latest government, unemployment stands at around nine per cent, emigration rates are staggering especially amongst young graduates, and the health system is crippled by savage cuts. On top of this, the government introduced water charges, which have been deeply unpopular, sparking protests around the country. Combined, these factors have resulted in fierce anti-government sentiment which has driven voters away from the traditional government parties and towards hard left parties such as the Anti-Austerity-Alliance People-Before-Profit and Sinn Féin. 

In particular, this has bolstered support for independent politicians, who are now backed with a first preference vote by one in five voters. This appears to be because the electorate simply don’t trust political parties anymore and are so drained by extreme austerity that they are adopting an insular, more localised approach to interests, instead of a national approach. The understanding seems to be that independent politicians will have the freedom to put the interests of their local area before a national party line, and this is appealing for people who are fed up of being told that austerity is required for the national interest.

Ireland is also undergoing rapid social change as a wide generational divide is growing over the Catholic church. Whilst older voters and older parties continue to be politically influenced by Catholic values, younger, more liberal voters have rejected this. During last year’s referendum on same-sex marriage and amid current calls for a referendum on the country’s abortion ban, these tensions have been widening. This is partly why new political parties have emerged, including the Social Democrats and Renua, both of which were founded in 2015 and have made a considerable dent in the traditional parties’ vote share.

The coming days and weeks will show whether any of the parties are able or wiling to come together to form a grand-coalition or attempt to rule by minority government and the coming months will tell if or for how long the country can limp along in this way. It is clear from this weekend’s result that the Irish people have firmly rejected the political status quo. But quite what they have rejected it for, and whether the country’s parliamentary structures are fit to deliver it, won’t be clear for some time.