T here has been no shortage of surprises in Ireland’s election results. A party historically linked to the Provisional IRA won the popular vote. A political duopoly rooted in a civil war a century earlier has, finally, ended. And nobody knows what the next government will look like.
Given all this real drama, it was more than a bit curious to see the reaction from sections of the British media. After more than three years covering Brexit as if it were a football match, more than a few British pundits seemed determined to shoehorn Ireland’s shifting politics into a black / white view of the world with Britain at its center. At times, it felt as if London journalists were commenting on a different election altogether.
Some of the errors were factual. A Financial Times reporter wrongly declared on Twitter that the outgoing taoiseach Leo Varadkar had lost his seat – apparently not understanding that Ireland uses a different electoral system to the UK. (Varadkar had to sweat until the fifth round of counting.) Another newspaper’s election “explainer” got the number of seats in Ireland wrong.
More often, however, the Irish election hot-takes were – well, decidedly lukewarm: Sinn Féin’s surprising success was just like Brexit, or Donald Trump. The BBC’s venerable foreign correspondent John Simpson declared that Ireland , “which has been politically stable for decades”, had now “succumbed to populism” without providing any evidence of what he meant.
Other commentators, including a Conservative political strategist, declared that Irish voters had primarily been motivated by a rising tide of anti-British sentiment. (In fact, just 1% said that Brexit was their number one election issue.)
Sorry guys, but not everything is about you.
Yes, Brexit brought old resentments towards Britain to the fore, but this election was mainly fought on bread-and-butter politics. The much-vaunted economic recovery has not been felt by vast swaths of the population, especially those trying to find a home. The health service is a mess. No wonder most Irish voters listed housing and health as their primary concerns.
Looking at the Irish election purely through the prism of British politics – or even of the rise of populism – misses a lot of the nuances of what has happened in Ireland. Having rejected Fianna Fáil in
– the party of Éamon De Valera was blamed for bankrupting the country in the financial crisis – Irish voters have turned their back on Fine Gael too. The parties’ combined vote looks likely to be about 728%, a record low.
Sinn Féin’s surge has been remarkable. In my native county, the party topped the poll with an unknown candidate in a constituency in which Sinn Féin had not won a seat in decades . That pattern was repeated across the country.
The Sinn Féin triumph has changed Ireland’s electoral landscape – and could change its relations with Britain. A border poll on Irish unity is firmly on the political agenda. But here again, British commentators would do well to take a deeper look at what’s going on.
A majority of young Irish voters now say they want to see border poll soon. But more than Irish unification they want public services and better prospects. Almost a third of young people in Dublin voted for Sinn Féin. The republicans ’success ensured that a slew of leftwing candidates were also elected as Sinn Féin’s voters transferred to the Greens, the Social Democrats and other parties under Ireland’s proportional voting system.
The Sinn Féin tsunami was not preordained. Many Irish voters wanted change but only alighted on Mary Lou McDonald’s party as the vehicle for their disaffection relatively late in the campaign. Having performed badly in recent European and local elections, Sinn Féin unexpectedly emerged as the alternative consensus in the closing weeks.
These are the paradoxes and complexities of a dynamic political situation. Which is something that many British commentators have not had to deal with for quite a long time now.
Watching RTE’s excellent election coverage over the weekend, I was struck by the absence of the predictable thinktankers and partisan talking heads that often dominate British political coverage. Rather than discussing the election they wished had happened, studio guests were talking about the vote that had taken place. Maybe it’s time Britain followed Ireland’s lead.
• Peter Geoghegan is investigations editor at openDemocracyUK
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