Will Dáil election results decommission civil war politics?

Dáil election has big implications for Northern Ireland

Dáil election has big implications for Northern Ireland

LET the horse-trading begin.

The people have spoken – or most of them anyway.

With the tallies and early results confirming the direction of travel shown by exit polls, Fine Gael has managed to snatch what feels like defeat from the jaws of victory, but there are crumbs of comfort for most across the political spectrum with the exception of the decimated Labour Party.

Fine Gael has blown what was probably its best-ever chance to return to power with an increased majority, Fianna Fáil has shown that electorates have short memories, while both face the prospect of doing a deal together to deliver stable government.

Sinn Féin has added to its seats, hardening up its gains after an election campaign where it was slipping back in the opinion polls.

Meanwhile, smaller parties and independents have taken a huge chunk of the first preference vote.

But it is the longer term trend that will intrigue most.

CHANGED TIMES

With the two biggest parties running close to each other, but potentially garnering a combined vote of 50% or less, this is new terrain.

Fine Gael is braced for the loss of over 20 seats taking it to the region of 50 TDs in the new Dáil, with Fianna Fáil more than doubling its previous tally of 20 seats and in a position to chase down further gains as counting continues.

The parties that traditionally dominated politics and took turns to lead government now need each other to pass the 79 seat target to secure a majority.

The trend may suggest an electoral sea-change: an unwillingness to settle for a difference of government based on civil war legacies rather than policies.

The vote could force the parties dubbed by their enemies as Tweedledee and Tweedledum into a shotgun wedding.

They are promising to take their time to consider all options once the full picture is clear, but the electorate will not thank either of them for refusing one another’s hand if this is the only means of securing stability.

The alternative would likely be another election where both could be punished severely for their hubris.

Of course, this would cede the mantle of main opposition party to Sinn Féin, which would be tantamount to a guaranteed increase in popularity during the term of the next government, however long that might last.

This is an option that will haunt discussions between the two bigger parties in the days ahead.

Sinn Féin had a fraught campaign of sorts, although its vote could rise by around 50% from its 2011 support level of close to 10% when it took 14 seats.

But there will likely be internal disappointment over its failure to build on the first preference momentum gained in the 2014 local elections after soaring in the polls since then.

The continued reminders of the IRA past came back to haunt the party during the campaign.

Similarly, the help or hindrance factor of the leadership of Gerry Adams continues to be the subject of debate for the media and political analysts.

But his party was today insisting he is a leader that has presided over seat gains and it can now bring some new talent into its Dáil team.

BIG PICTURE

But for the first time in history, it appears there is a possibility of the traditional shape of politics giving way to a left-right divide.

Whether that comes to pass could depend on the nature of any working relationship brokered by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. They may forge a cooperation pact that falls short of coalition, or seek to identify other options.

But looking at the other new TDs, many of the independents are left-leaning, as are smaller groupings and Sinn Féin. Together they have taken an enormous chunk of what was historically a centre-right vote carved up between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Now it will fall to those two main parties to assess their new place in the changed political world.

The people have spoken.

The politicians of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will be under pressure to show that they have listened.