By Simon Basketter
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Irish elections set to show long term shift away from three main parties

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Issue 2690
Leo Varadkar hoped for an easy ride
Leo Varadkar hoped for an easy ride (Pic: Liam Lysaght/Flickr)

Irish taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar was hoping to get an easy ride to re-election this week.

He hoped the mess the British government had made of Brexit would make him appear statesman like.

All indications are he was wrong.

Brexit hasn’t featured in the campaign, rather anger over health, housing and to some extent the environment.

Sinn Fein was the biggest party in one opinion poll.

The repeated experience of junior coalition parties—Green and Labour—being trounced after a spell in government may discourage Sinn Fein from rushing to be in a coalition even if it is possible.

It wants to join the establishment but is under pressure from its working class supporters not to.

It has refused to rule out a coalition with the bosses’ parties.

Fine Gael, Varadkar’s party, is battling with Fianna Fail over a declining share of the vote.

These two bosses’ parties have alternated in office. After being the natural party of government for most of the history of the Irish state, Fianna Fail was decimated in 2011 for implementing European Union austerity.

Fine Gael has spent the past nine years presiding over a deepening housing crisis, with record levels of homelessness and the return of mass emigration as living standards dropped.

The Labour Party is still being punished for being in a coalition government for the first half of the last decade.


This all reflects a long term, important shift in Irish politics. Just over three decades ago the three main parties received 94 percent of the vote.

In the 2007 election the combined popular vote for Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour was 79 percent.

In 2016 it was just over half. It is set to fall again.

This has been combined with the mass movements that led to the legalisation of abortion and other liberalisations.

A grand coalition between the bosses’ parties is possible, but unlikely. A number of independents kept the last government going on an ad hoc basis. Sinn Fein has tacked left in the south in recent years.

But in Northern Ireland it oversaw austerity measures as part of the assembly.

In contrast the Solidarity-People Before Profit alliance has called the election an “historic opportunity”.

Richard Boyd Barrett People Before Profit TD (MP) said this week that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael “have had their 100 years running the state”.

“They’ve left us with a mess in the most basic things, housing, health, the cost of living, the climate,” he said.

“The polls are showing—and I think the trend is showing—that more than 50 percent of people are looking for something different.

“When we do come together—as we have done on a number of campaigns—we have been very, very effective.

“I would appeal to all of the left—including some of the radical left—to build a united front that offers people a genuine alternative.”

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