The most significant aspect of the 2020 Ireland general election was the unprecedented success of Sinn Féin. They won thirty-seven seats in Dáil Éireann, the most amount of seats for any party alongside Fianna Fáil (although Fianna Fáil technically have thirty-eight seats, one of whom is the Ceann Comhairle who is automatically elected), and they received more votes then any other party. For the first time in one hundred years, Sinn Féin have a very likely chance of becoming a party of government in the south, although they are still not close to the eighty seats required to form a government.
Sinn Féin received 535,595 first preference votes in the general election, 24.5% of the total vote and more than any other party. This is the largest number of votes that Sinn Féin has ever received in a general election, higher than the 497,107 votes in 1918, although the 1918 result was a significantly higher percentage at 46.9%.
Sinn Féin’s support has increased substantially since the party began to contest elections north and south in 1982. Their first Dáil election for the modern party was in November 1982, and since then their vote has gone from a few thousand to over half a million.
Sinn Féin abandoned their absententionist position towards the Dáil in 1986, but they would not gain a seat there until 1997, with Caomhghín Ó Caoláin (who left the Dáil in this election) winning a seat in Cavan-Monaghan. But they quickly gained more seats and have done particularly well since 2011.
Thirty-seven Sinn Féin TDs were elected, their largest ever number in a STV Dáil election. There were four constituencies in which Sinn Féin ran two candidates and both were elected: Cavan-Monaghan, Dublin Mid-West, Donegal and Louth. There are only six constituencies with no Sinn Féin TD, Cork North-West (where there was no Sinn Féin candidate), Cork South-West, Dublin Rathdown, Dún Laoghaire, Galway East and Limerick County.
Sinn Féin’s highest percentage vote was in Donegal, where their two candidates received 45.1% of the vote. Also over 40% was Dublin North-West (44.4%) Dublin Mid-West (42.8%) and Louth (42.0%). And the constituencies with a Sinn Féin vote of over 30% were Dublin South-Central (39.3%), Waterford (38.3%) Cavan-Monaghan (36.7%), Dublin Central (35.7%) and Meath West (30.5%). Had Sinn Féin ran additional candidates in all of these constituencies, they probably would have finished with 42 seats rather than 37. The only constituency in which Sinn Féin did not reach 10% of the vote was Dún Laoghaire, with 9.6%.
Of the thirty-seven Sinn Féin candidates elected, twenty-six topped the poll in their respective constituencies and twenty-five were elected on the first count, three of those twenty-six poll toppers had to wait until a later count to be elected while in Donegal and Louth two Sinn Féin candidates were elected on the first count. In Mayo and Kerry the Sinn Féin candidate was elected on the first count, but in second place behind Fine Gael’s Michael Ring and Michael Healy-Rae respectively.
The scale of the surplus vote of some Sinn Féin candidates was such that they could have ran and elected significantly more candidates. However, these surplus votes nonetheless had an important impact of a number of constituencies, helping to elect candidates from smaller left-wing parties and often stopping Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil from gaining or defending seats. It is therefore worth looking at some of the Sinn Féin surplus votes and which parties they went to in the absence of a Sinn Féin running-mate.
In Dublin South-Central, the majority of Aengus Ó Snodaigh’s surplus votes elected Solidarity-PBP candidate Brid Smith on the second count, her vote more than doubled on that basis. Independents 4 Change candidate Joan Collins also held her seat partially due to Sinn Féin transfers, moving from sixth to fourth place, while Green candidate Patrick Costello was also elected. This means that all four TDs in Dublin South-Central are left-wing, with Fine Gael losing their seat to the Greens and Fianna Fáil failing to gain a target seat.
In Dublin South-West Séan Crowe had nearly two quotas, the main beneficiary of his surplus vote was Solidarity-PBP candidate Paul Murphy, who nearly doubled his vote from Sinn Féin transfers and took the second seat. The Social Democrats and Greens both did well on transfers from Sinn Féin, with the Greens taking a seat here from the independent Minister Katherine Zappone.
In Dublin North-West Dessie Ellis had a huge 44.4% of the vote, his surplus tripled the Solidarity-PBP vote, making them unexpectedly competitive for the third and final seat. Although Fianna Fáil managed to gain the final seat from Fine Gael as expected, Solidarity-PBP came very close as the runner up.
In Dublin Bay North Denise Mitchell had the largest vote of any candidate in the election, 21,344 votes. As elsewhere, Solidarity-PBP received the most surplus votes from Sinn Féin, and the Independent Left candidate John Lyons doubled his vote on Sinn Féin transfers.
In Dublin Central Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald topped the poll with nearly two quotas. The main beneficiary of her surplus vote was independent former Sinn Féin member Christy Burke, who was the runner up. While Solidarity-PBP received more Sinn Féin transfers then any other party, it was the Greens and Social Democrats who gained seats here, while Fine Gael also held a seat and Fianna Fáil lost out on another target seat in Dublin.
Moving away from Dublin, in Waterford David Cullinane had nearly two quotas. His surplus vote helped the independent candidate Matt Shanahan gain a seat, while the Greens also took the final seat here at the expense of Fine Gael. This is one constituency in which Fianna Fáil did surprisingly well on Sinn Féin transfers.
In Louth Imelda Munster and Ruairí Ó Murchú were both elected on the first count. Munster took a seat from Labour’s Ged Nash in 2016, this time more then 1,000 of her nearly 6,000 surplus votes helped Nash regain his seat from Fianna Fáil. The Greens also did well on Sinn Féin transfers, as did independent former Fine Gael TD Peter Fitzpatrick who held his seat.
Finally, in Donegal Pearse Doherty and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn were both elected on the first count, and Doherty’s surplus of 8,000 votes helped independent candidate Thomas Pringle defend his seat. Pringle was widely expected to lose his seat to Sinn Féin, although he started in sixth place Sinn Féin transfers brought him ahead and he finished third, while Fianna Fáil lost one of their two seats.
Sinn Féin transfers also had a significant impact in constituencies where they did not win a seat. For example, in Cork South-West Sinn Féin’s Paul Hayes was excluded on the penultimate count, his transfers ensured that the final seat went to Holly Cairns from the Social Democrats, rather than Fine Gael candidate Tim Lombard. On the other hand, Sinn Féin transfers in Dublin Rathdown were not enough for Fianna Fáil to gain a seat, instead Fine Gael gained a second seat from independent Shane Ross as both Neale Richmond and Josepha Madigan were elected.
This election is unprecedented in terms of the extent of Sinn Féin transfers available. In Northern Ireland we are used to Sinn Féin being one of the major parties, and therefore their transfers have always been significant. Generally in Northern Ireland elections, Sinn Féin transfers will go to their colleagues, and if there are no other Sinn Féin candidates then they will go mostly to the SDLP. The clear result of this election in the south is that Sinn Féin voters overwhelmingly transfer to other left-wing parties, primarily Solidarity-PBP but also the Greens and Social Democrats. Labour did not receive as many Sinn Féin transfers, probably because of their relatively recent time in Government with Fine Gael, but there were some Labour candidates such as Ged Nash who did well on Sinn Féin transfers. Fianna Fáil mostly received more Sinn Féin transfers then Fine Gael, but again there were some exceptions such as Louth.
This is Sinn Féin’s best election in the south of Ireland since 1918, and the largest representation they have had in the modern Dáil Éireann. However, there is no clear path to power or for Mary Lou McDonald to become the first female Taoiseach. Neither Sinn Féin and Fine Gael or Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil reaches the key number of eighty, and both of those parties are reluctant to work with Sinn Féin anyway. The combined seat number for Sinn Féin, Greens, Labour, Social Democrats and Solidarity-PBP (all the parties clearly on the left) is only sixty-six, so they would need at least fourteen of the twenty independents, or thirteen if they can also gain the support of Aontú’s one TD. It is difficult to see how Sinn Féin can lead a Government on these figures but it is not impossible.