Political Hurdles Lie Ahead In Ireland After Sinn Fein Wins Popular Vote

Feb 15, 2020
Originally published on February 16, 2020 7:55 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A political drama unfolds in Ireland this week. Sinn Fein, an Irish nationalist party with ties to the Irish Republican Army, won the popular vote and 37 seats in Parliament in last week's elections. The former ruling parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, trailed closely behind. Ahead are more weeks of jockeying and rivalry to try to form a new government or call for new elections. We're joined now by Marie O'Halloran, parliamentary reporter for The Irish Times, who's in Dublin. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARIE O'HALLORAN: Hello there, Scott.

SIMON: So what happened?

O'HALLORAN: Well, the election was a political earthquake because traditionally it has been a two-party system of government where one or other of either Fianna Fail or else Fine Gael were the main parties of government for decades. And in this election, all changed. And Sinn Fein are the party who came in, and it's now a three-party system for the first time in the history of the state. But what it has meant is that the parties got more or less the same vote each. So we have a hung Parliament, political deadlock and all the drama that follows on from that.

SIMON: Is it right, as I seen in some accounts, to read these results as a rejection of the pro-European Union government of Prime Minister Varadkar?

O'HALLORAN: Leo Varadkar, our taoiseach, our prime minister, his party got 20% of the vote, which was the lowest share of the three parties. So it is seen as a rejection of the Fine Gael-led government, which was a coalition with a group of independent TDs and ministers. So that alliance was swept out between retirements and losing seats and Fine Gael are now No. 3. It's their worst election since 1948.

SIMON: I think a lot of Americans wonder how can it be that Sinn Fein, with its antecedents in the Irish Republican Army, how could they win the popular vote?

O'HALLORAN: Historically, as you say, Sinn Fein has been associated or was seen as a political arm of the Irish Republican Army through the Troubles. And we had that 35 years of atrocities and bombings and shootings on both sides. And then we had the peace agreement. And since then, we've had a relatively peaceful administration or system in the north. Young people in Ireland who have grown up and have only ever known a peaceful Ireland - so they're completely unaware of the history. They haven't grown up with it. Plus, the vote this time around was mostly particularly around the economy, around health and around the cost of living. So they've pledged to freeze rents for three years and to give people who are renting tax relief. And both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have been in agreement that it would be bad for the economy. There would be unintended consequences if there was a rent freeze.

SIMON: How does Sinn Fein form a government? Can they?

O'HALLORAN: Well, they can't form a government because their initial preference was to have a left-wing government that would exclude Fianna Fail and Fine Gael completely from government. So that would have meant Sinn Fein with a number of other parties. And Fianna Fail, the parliamentary party, has ruled out any potential coalition with Sinn Fein. So what we know at the end of this week is what's not going to be put together rather than what can be put together in terms of government.

SIMON: What stands in the way of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail forming a government?

O'HALLORAN: Well, this is the history of Ireland. They're called the civil war parties, that they have been in opposition since the foundation of the state. If that ever came on the table - and we're at the stage where nobody is saying anything formally - if Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were to consider what has been called a grand coalition, it would be a seismic shift in Irish politics.

SIMON: I got to tell you, from the outside, it sounds like new elections are a good possibility. Are they?

O'HALLORAN: The party to gain most from another election are Sinn Fein because Sinn Fein have been excluded from this possibility of forming a government. Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael said they will not go into government with Sinn Fein. They campaigned on this. But I also think there's concern, too, about having stability, that because of the debate in Britain about Brexit and leaving and Ireland wanted to be seen as stable and providing stable government while the pandemonium was going on across the water in Britain.

SIMON: Marie O'Halloran of The Irish Times, thanks so much.

O'HALLORAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.