Key Takeaways from the Irish General Election 2020
By Maura Reilly
This past Saturday, February 8th, while the Iowa Democratic Party was continuing to calculate who won the primary election, the Irish voters went to the polls for their general election. While coalition government has yet to be decided, some key election takeaways are clear, the Sinn Féin is poised to come out of the election with the most votes of any party and 37 seats in the Dáil second only to the Fianna Fáil, and the number of seats held by women only rose by three, bringing the total number of women up to 36.
Between 1992 and 2011, the number of women Teachtaí Dála (TDs) only increased by two percent. This extreme stagnation led to the implementation of enforced gender quotas for party’s fielding candidates in the general election. A 30 percent gender quota was put in place for the 2016 election, if a party failed to meet the quota they lost 50 percent of their state funding. The 30 percent quota remained for this past election but will rise to 40 percent for the 2023 election season. Although this year marks the first time in Irish history there is at least one woman candidate in all 39 constituencies, the total number of women candidates only rose by two from 2016, bringing to total up to 162, and the largest parties have just barely scraped the 30 percent quota.
The Social Democratic Party, co-led by Roisin Shorthall and Catherine Murphy is the only party to reach and surpass gender parity, with 55 percent of their fielded candidates being women, the Green Party follows on their heels with women making up 41 percent, Solidarity-People Before Profit Party with 38 percent, and Sinn Féin led by Mary Lou McDonald with 33 percent.
The two largest parties, Fianna Fáil led by Micheál Martin and Fine Gael led by Taoseach Leo Varadkar have faced scrutiny for their commitment to gender parity. Despite fielding the most candidates the parties only had 31 percent and 30.5 percent women candidates respectively. During the campaign, Martin came out against appointing a gender balanced cabinet should his party win, while Varadkar said he could not commit to a gender balanced cabinet especially in the case of a coalition government. Both parties have lost a number of their seats in the Dáil and will have to form a coalition with other parties to maintain control of the government.
While the overall numbers of women in the Dáil barely increased, Mary Lou McDonald leader of the Sinn Féin party has the opportunity to become the first woman Taoiseach. McDonald has led the party to a surprising electoral victory, overseeing the modernization of the party from a fringe nationalist party to mainstream left alternative to the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. McDonald and the Sinn Féin campaigned on solving the burgeoning housing crisis, the homelessness problem and rising cost of living, all linked back to the austerity measures implemented by the Fine Gael government following the financial crisis. McDonald’s leadership has also helped the party move away from its past connections to the IRA and the Troubles under former leader Gerry Adams who stepped down in 2018. During this election, the party gained a large following among younger voters, many of whom have little or no memory of the Troubles which were concluded with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Despite the changing nature of the Sinn Féin, the party continues to call for a united Ireland and made a referendum on the topic a condition for forming a coalition. While the topic was not on the ballot this past weekend, an exit poll found a majority of voters would support a border poll in the next five years illustrating the growing popularity of a united Ireland on both sides of the border with the progression of Brexit. With the favorable results and second highest number of seats in the Dáil, the Sinn Féin will likely be a key player in the formation of the government which requires 81 seats. Prior to the election both Martin and Varadkar vehemently refused the potentiality of forming a coalition with the Sinn Féin. Since the overwhelming results, Martin has said he respects the people’s choice and would be open to forming a coalition government, while Varadkar has states it is out of the question due to a difference in policy stances and morals.
Despite having the highest number of candidates elected on the first count, the Sinn Féin earned one less seat than the Fianna Fáil (38 seats) because they fielded fewer candidates, only one per constituency and the country’s electoral system. The Republic of Ireland uses a single transferable voting (STV) electoral system, a form of proportional representation which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, it is more commonly known in the US as ranked choice voting with multi-member districts. Since the Sinn Féin only field one candidate per constituency, they avoided the pitfalls of splitting votes between candidates of the same party, but once the Sinn Féin candidate reached the vote threshold needed to win a seat the additional first-choice votes for them were re-distributed to the voters’ second-choice candidates.
STV has been in place since Irish independence in 1922, it was favored both by Irish political elites and the departing British who wanted Protestant citizens, who made up roughly five percent of the population to be proportionally represented. STV has since been implemented in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement to address the tensions between unionists and nationalists and ensure equal political representation and opportunity.
STV has largely worked in Ireland allowing smaller political parties and political minorities proportional representation in the Dáil, and the two referendums to change the system to first-past-the-post have both failed. However, the system has faced criticism for intra-party competition resulting in animosity and attacks against political newcomers, which could explain the continued low numbers of women candidates and TDs despite an electoral system and gender quotas which should lead to greater gender parity.
Maura is a RepresentWomen Research Fellow from the Washington, D.C. area. She graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland this past spring with an honors degree in Social Anthropology. Follow Maura on Twitter, @further_maura.