The 2020 general election in Ireland was widely believed to be the moment in which Fianna Fáil would return to power. They have been in opposition since 2011, the longest ever time in opposition for the party, although they have supported the Fine Gael Government through a confidence and supply arrangement since 2016. From 1932 to 2011, Fianna Fáil was in power for sixty-two years, so clearly the majority of that nearly eighty year period. However, after an inconclusive election result in which they have finished with narrowly the most seats, there is no obvious route for Micheál Martin to follow all of the previous Fianna Fáil leaders into the office of Taoiseach.
Fianna Fáil received 484,320 first preference votes in the general election, 22.2% of the total vote and finishing second on overall votes behind Sinn Féin. This is the second lowest number of votes that Fianna Fáil has received since 1932, the only lower vote in the last ninety years was the devastating election of 2011 in which they received 387,358 votes (17.5%).
Thirty-seven Fianna Fáil TDs were elected, the same number as Sinn Féin, their second lowest number ever after 2011, which was only twenty. Although they technically will have thirty-eight TDs as the outgoing Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl was automatically returned as a TD for Kildare North, which was coincidentially one of the few constituencies which did not return a Fianna Fáil TD. This also happened in 2011 when Séamus Kirk was the outgoing Ceann Comhairle and was therefore returned as a TD for Louth, while his party narrowly missed out on a seat in Louth.
There are thirty-two constituencies which will have a Fianna Fáil TD in the new Dáil. Of these, six elected two Fianna Fáil TDs, Carlow-Kilkenny, Cavan-Monaghan, Cork North-West, Cork South-Central, Laois-Offaly and Longford-Westmeath. This suggests that Fianna Fáil remains strong in rural areas, particularly in the mid and mid-west of Ireland, as has traditionally been the case. County Cork also remains a strong area for them too. On the other hand, there were seven constituencies with no Fianna Fáil TD, Dublin Central, Dublin Mid-West, Dublin Rathdown, Dublin South-Central, Louth, Meath West and Roscommon-Galway.
Fianna Fáil gained three seats. In Dublin North-West Lord Mayor Paul McAuliffe gained a seat from Fine Gael’s Noel Rock, back in 2016 McAuliffe had started ahead but Rock pulled ahead on the final round on the basis of Labour transfers. This time McAuliffe had a more decisive lead, and had to rely on Rock’s transfers to stop Solidarity-PBP from taking the final seat. Also in Dún Laoghaire Cormac Devlin gained a seat from Fine Gael’s Mary Mitchell O’Connor, he did marginally better on Sinn Féin transfers to win the first seat here for Fianna Fáil in nearly ten years, whereas in 2016 the party had nearly a quota but failed to gain a seat due to poor balancing. Finally, in Longford-Westmeath Fianna Fáil won a second seat, Joe Flaherty was elected alongside Robert Troy, while the independent Minister Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran lost out. However, Fianna Fáil also lost nine seats. In Dublin Mid-West John Curran lost out to the Sinn Féin surge, as they won two seats and their transfers saved the Solidarity-PBP candidate Gino Kenny in the later rounds. Fianna Fáil were also targeting gains for Mary Fitzpatrick in Dublin Central, Catherine Ardagh in Dublin South-Central and Shay Brennan in Dublin Rathdown, all three narrowly lost out on seats in a disappointing result for Fianna Fáil in the capital. There were several Fianna Fáil losses in the north-west, in Donegal Charlie McConalogue was elected but Pat ‘the Cope’ Gallagher lost out to Sinn Féin; in Sligo-Leitrim Marc MacSharry held his seat but Eamon Scanlon lost to the independent candidate Marian Harkin; in Mayo deputy leader Dara Calleary was elected but Lisa Chambers lost to Sinn Féin; and most surprisingly in Roscommon-Galway Eugene Murphy lost his seat to Sinn Féin. Other losses for Fianna Fáil in the east included Declan Breathnach in Louth to Labour, Shane Cassells in Meath West to Aontú, Frank O’Rourke lost in Kildare North to Sinn Féin and Fiona O’Loughlin in Kildare South to Sinn Féin and an independent candidate. Also, some Fianna Fáil TDs lost out to party colleagues, including Timmy Dooley in Clare to Cathal Crowe, Margaret Murphy O’Mahony in Cork South-West to Christopher O’Sullivan and John Brassil in Kerry to Norma Foley. In Wicklow Stephen Donnelly was the only Fianna Fáil TD returned, he had been elected for the Social Democrats in 2016 while the successful Fianna Fáil candidate in 2016 Pat Casey lost his seat. And in Wexford the successful 2016 candidate James Browne was re-elected, but Malcolm Byrne lost the seat he had won in the November 2018 by-election.
In terms of percentage votes, there were not any constituencies with a Fianna Fáil vote of over 40%. Their highest percentage result was 39.5% in Cork North-West, the only constituency without a Sinn Féin candidate. Also above 30% were Carlow-Kilkenny (37.3%), Clare (36.1%), Cork South-Central (35.5%) and Longford-Westmeath (30.2%), Fianna Fáil returned two TDs in each of these constituencies apart from Clare. Fianna Fáil was above 20% in every constituency across Connaght and Ulster, apart from Roscommon-Galway where they lost a seat to Sinn Féin. In Munster they also had more then 20% in every constituency apart from Tipperary and Waterford. In contrast, it was a more disappointing result in Leinster, particularly in Louth were they lost a seat on 13.7%, and Wicklow where they held one seat on 14.0%. Notably, Fianna Fáil was on less then 20% in every Dublin constituency apart from Dublin Fingal (24.9%). This contributed to the party losing out in several target seats in Dublin, such as Central, South-Central and Rathdown, although it did not stop them gaining seats in North-West and Dún Laoghaire.
This was undoubtedly a disappointing election for Fianna Fáil, and not what most of us were expecting. It could be that their vote has been negatively impacted by supporting the Fine Gael led Government since 2016, or that voters have still not forgotten the 2008 financial crash and Fianna Fáil’s subsequent decisions in the lead up to 2011. However, it does appear that the Sinn Féin surge has cost them support, votes and therefore seats, particularly in Roscommon-Galway, Mayo, Donegal, Meath West and Louth. The party did reasonably well in some straight contests with Fine Gael, such as Dublin North-West and Dún Laoghaire, though in others Fine Gael proved to be more resilient such as Dublin Rathdown and Sligo-Leitrim. Now the choice for Micheál Martin is to consider whether to approach Fine Gael or Sinn Féin for some sort of arrangement. Fianna Fáil would clearly be ideologically closer to Fine Gael, but the historic rivalry between could persuade Martin to instead work with Sinn Féin (which would have interesting implications for the Fianna Fáil/SDLP partnership). But support would also be required from smaller parties or independents to reach the key number of eighty seats). Will Martin become the first Fianna Fáil leader not to serve as Taoiseach? We will find out in the next few weeks.