Ireland General Election 2020: Smaller parties and independents

The only clear result from the 2020 general election in Ireland is that there are no longer two main parties but three, as Sinn Féin has joined Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil as one of the main parties. Between them these three parties have 67.6% of the vote and 110 of the 160 seats in the Dáil. But there is no clear path to power, even if two of the three main parties cooperate, making the various smaller parties and independents more important than ever. With that in mind it is worth looking at the performance of the smaller parties and independents, and whether they may decide to help the bigger parties form a government.

Green Party

The Green Party had an excellent election. They did particularly well in the 2019 local and European elections, primarily at the expense of Sinn Féin. It therefore seemed that with Sinn Féin doing very well in the polls this time that the Greens would not do as well as in 2019. But because Sinn Féin candidates did so well in most constituencies, the Greens were able to benefit from their transfers as well as from other parties to finish with twelve seats. 

The Green Party received 155,700 first preference votes, 7.1% of the vote and 4.4% more then in 2016. This was very clearly their highest ever percentage vote in a general election:

They returned twelve TDs, also clearly their highest ever number:

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan topped the poll in Dublin Bay South and was elected on the first count, and their deputy leader Catherine Martin topped the poll in Dublin Rathdown and was the first candidate elected on the fifth count. Joe O’Brien also held the seat he had won in the Dublin Fingal by-election three months ago. The Greens gained five more seats in Dublin, Neasa Hourigan in Dublin Central from an independent, Patrick Costello in Dublin South-Central from Fine Gael, Francis Noel Duffy in Dublin South-West from independent Minister Katherine Zappone, Roderic O’Gorman in Dublin West from Labour or Solidarity-PBP, and Ossian Smyth in Dún Laoghaire from Fine Gael. The Green Party performance outside Dublin was also impressive, as they gained four additional seats: Steven Matthews in Wicklow from Fine Gael, Marc Ó Cathasaigh in Waterford from Fine Gael, Malcolm Noonan in Carlow-Kilkenny from Fine Gael, and Brian Leddin in Limerick City from Labour. The Greens also came close to several other seats, in Cork South-Central Lorna Bogue was the runner-up, 1,630 votes behind Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath. In Dublin Bay North David Healy was the runner-up, 2,428 votes behind Seán Haughey from Fianna Fáil, Healy’s decision to vote no on repealing the Eighth Amendment may have hurt his vote and allowed Labour and the Social Democrats to start in a stronger position because their candidates were strongly pro-repeal. Also in Louth, Mark Dearey did very well, when he was excluded on the penultimate count he was just 141 votes behind Labour’s Ged Nash. Had this situation been reversed Nash’s transfers would have elected Dearey, instead Dearey’s transfers elected Nash at the expense of Fianna Fáil.

The Greens contested all thirty-nine constituencies. Unsurprisingly, their two strongest percentage votes were in the two constituencies with Green TDs in 2016, Dublin Bay South (22.4%) and Dublin Rathdown (21.1%). Also over 10% were Dún Laoghaire (14.9%), Dublin Central (12.3%), Dublin West (11.2%) and Kildare North (10.1%). Of these, Kildare North was the only constituency not to elect a Green TD.

Labour

Labour had a difficult election, going into it with seven TDs and finishing with six. This was their lowest ever number of TDs and also the first time ever that they have finished in fifth place. Historically they have been the third party in a two party system, similarly to the Liberal Democrats in Britain, in 2011 they had their best ever result, finishing in second place behind Fine Gael and ahead of Fianna Fáil. They dropped to fourth place in 2016 behind Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, and now they are joint fifth alongside the Social Democrats and behind the Greens.

Labour received 95,588 first preference votes, 4.4% of the vote and down 2.2% from 2016. This was their lowest number of votes since 1933 and their lowest percentage vote ever:

They returned six TDs, also their lowest ever number:

Three of the seven outgoing Labour TDs were re-elected, leader Brendan Howlin in Wexford, Alan Kelly in Tipperary and Seán Sherlock in Cork East. In Dublin Fingal Duncan Smith defended the Labour seat previously held by Brendan Ryan, it was an extremely close result, as Smith defeated the Independents 4 Change candidate for the last seat by 188 votes. Two Labour Senators who had lost their seats in 2016 returned to the Dáil this time: Aodhán Ó Ríordáin in Dublin Bay North and Ged Nash in Louth. However, they also lost three seats: former leader and Tánaiste Joan Burton lost her seat in Dublin West to Sinn Féin or the Green Party, Jan O’Sullivan lost her seat in Limerick City to the Green Party, and their seat in Longford-Westmeath was lost to Sinn Féin, Willie Penrose had been the Labour TD here since 1992 but was not contesting this election.

Labour contested thirty-one constituencies, while eight had no Labour candidate, mainly around Cork, Limerick and Kerry but also in Donegal, Roscommon and Meath West. They were above 10% of the vote in four constituencies, Kildare South (12.5%), Wexford (12.3%), Cork East (12.1%) and Dublin Bay North (11.3%). Surprisingly, although Kildare South had the highest percentage vote for Labour in any constituency, Mark Wall did not win a seat, as independent candidate Cathal Berry did slightly better on transfers and Labour transfers ensured that Berry won the final seat at the expense of Fianna Fáil. Other solid results included Tipperary (9.6%), Louth (8.2%), Dublin Bay South (7.9%), Dublin Rathdown (7.5%) and Dublin Fingal (7.1%), although Labour did not win a seat in Dublin Bay South or Dublin Rathdown. Their vote remains focused on where they have well known TDs, rather than a specific geographical focus.

Social Democrats

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of this election was the success of the Social Democrats. They were founded in 2015 by three TDs, two of whom were elected as independents in 2011, Stephen Donnelly and Catherine Murphy, and Róisín Shortall who had been a Labour TD since 1992. All three were re-elected in 2016, but Donnelly left the party to join Fianna Fáil. Murphy and Shortall have been co-leaders since then.

The Social Democrats received 63,404 first preference votes, 2.9% and down 0.1% from 2016. Despite this they won twice as many seats as in 2016. As expected, Catherine Murphy topped the poll and was the first candidate elected in Kildare North, and Róisín Shortall won the second seat in Dublin North-West, rather than the first as in 2016. They also regained their seat in Wicklow, Jennifer Whitmore won the second seat, while former Social Democrat TD Stephen Donnelly held his seat for Fianna Fáil, his colleague Pat Casey lost out to the Social Democrats. They gained three new seats: Gary Gannon was elected in Dublin Central, after narrowly missing out in 2016, Cian O’Callaghan was elected in Dublin Bay North, and Holly Cairns was elected in Cork South-West, gaining the final seat from Fine Gael as a result of Sinn Féin transfers.

The Social Democrats contested twenty constituencies, with no candidates in Ulster, or Connaught apart from Galway. They also had no candidates in the rural constituencies in the middle of Ireland. Unsurprisingly, their strongest votes was in Murphy’s constituency of Kildare North (19.2%) and Shortall’s constituency of Dublin North-West (18.9%), the only other constituency in which they were above 10% was Cork South-West (10.6%). Other strong results were Wicklow (9.9%), Dublin Central (9.3%) and Dublin Bay North (8.7%) were they won seats. They also received 8.3% of the vote in Cork North-West, the only constituency without a Sinn Féin candidate, there was also no Labour candidate, they finished as the runner-up here. As with Labour, the Social Democrat vote appears to be focused on individual candidates rather than geographically.

Solidarity-People Before Profit

This group is an electoral alliance of three left wing socialist parties, People Before Profit, Solidarity (formerly the Anti-Austerity Alliance) and RISE. The alliance between Solidarity and PBP started in 2015, but both parties remain officially separate and PBP also operate in Northern Ireland where they have one MLA and five councillors. In September 2019 one of their TDs Paul Murphy founded a new party, RISE, which is also part of the alliance.

Solidarity-PBP received 57,420 first preference votes, 2.6% and down 1.3% from 2016. Five of their six outgoing TDs were re-elected. From PBP, Richard Boyd Barrett topped the poll and was the second candidate elected in Dún Laoghaire, Bríd Smith started in fourth place in Dublin South-Central but Sinn Féin transfers elected her on the second round in second place, and Gino Kenny won the final seat in Dublin Mid-West, it looked as though Kenny would lose his seat with Sinn Féin winning two, but transfers from the Green Party and independents ensured that he took the final seat at the expense of Fianna Fáil. The one Solidarity TD elected was Mick Barry in Cork North-Central, who took the final seat there, he is therefore the only Solidarity-PBP TD from outside Dublin. And Paul Murphy was the second candidate elected in Dublin South-West for RISE, Solidarity had a candidate here who was significantly behind, but her transfers ensured the election of Murphy when he initially looked vulnerable. The only Solidarity-PBP TD not re-elected was Ruth Coppinger in Dublin West, a member of Solidarity. She started in fifth place and Sinn Féin transfers put her ahead of the Green Party candidate, but on the final round Labour transfers saved the Greens and they took the final seat from Coppinger.

Solidarity-PBP contested thirty-one constituencies, with most of the uncontested constituencies located around Munster including Cork, Limerick, Tipperary and Kerry, as well as Donegal, Meath West and Galway East. Their strongest percentage vote was for Boyd Barrett in Dún Laoghaire (15.5%), their other strongest results were Dublin South-Central (11.0%), Dublin West (10.0%), Dublin South-West (9.0%) Dublin Mid-West (7.9%) and Cork North-Central (7.2%), these were the six constituencies with outgoing Solidarity-PBP TDs going into this election. They were below 5% in every other constituency.

Aontú

Aontú was founded in November 2018 by Peadar Tóibín, TD for Meath West since 2011, he was elected for Sinn Féin in 2011 and 2016 for Sinn Féin but he had been suspended twice over opposing changes to the law on abortion. After the Eighth Amendment and his second suspension he left Sinn Féin and established Aontú. In the 2019 local elections they failed to make a significant breakthrough north or south, in Northern Ireland they won one council seat in Derry (a second councillor from Dungannon left the SDLP to join Aontú shortly after the election), and in the south they won three council seats in Meath, Cavan and Wexford.

Aontú received 41,614 first preference votes, 1.9%. This was their first general election, but their second election overall in the south, they received 1.5% in the 2019 local election. Peadar Tóibín was the only Aontú candidate elected, he held his Meath West seat while Sinn Féin regained a seat there and Fianna Fáil lost their seat. This was Aontú’s only realistic chance of a seat, and therefore they will be delighted with maintaining a seat in the Dáil. Before this election, it was difficult not to draw comparisons with Renua, a pro-life party founded in 2015 by several Fine Gael TDs opposed to abortion, but it had a disastrous general election in 2016 not winning any seats. In this election Renua received just 5,473 votes (0.3%). Aontú achieved what Renua was unable to do, namely defend a seat in the Dáil, even if it is only because of Tóibín’s personal vote.

Aontú contested twenty-six constituencies. They did not contest more then half of the Dublin constituencies, as well as much of the middle of Ireland such as Carlow-Kilkenny, Laois-Offaly and Longford-Westmeath. Unsurprisingly their strongest vote was for Tóibín in Meath West (17.6%), there were two other constituencies with an Aontú vote of over 5%, Cork North-West (8.4%) and Cavan-Monaghan (5.3%). These results suggest that Aontú is unlikely to gain any additional seats in the Dáil, and Tóibín is likely to remain their only high-profile figure alongside several local councillors, similarly to the situation in Northern Ireland with Jim Allister and his TUV party.

Independents

Twenty independent candidates were elected across sixteen constituencies, receiving 274,950 votes. This includes the Independents 4 Change who are registered as a political party but are more of a movement with several high-profile members. Four constituencies elected two independent TDs, Galway West, Kerry, Roscommon-Galway and Tipperary. Independent candidates did particularly well in Munster and Connaght, less so in Leinster and especially Dublin.

Of the twenty independent TDs, ten were also TDs in the previous Dáil. In Kerry Michael and Danny Healy-Rae were both re-elected. In Tipperary two of the three outgoing independents Michael Lowry and Mattie McGrath were also re-elected. Michael Fitzmaurice and Denis Naughten were both re-elected in Roscommon-Galway, and Noel Grealish and Catherine Connolly were both re-elected in Galway West. Four other independent candidates defended their seats, Thomas Pringle in Donegal, Seán Canney in Galway West, Michael Collins in Cork South-West and Joan Collins in Dublin South-Central, Joan Collins is the only Independents 4 Change TD in the new Dáil. There are five constituencies which elected an independent TD unlike in 2016; in Louth Peter Fitzpatrick held his seat, having previously been a Fine Gael TD, in Laois-Offaly Carol Nolan also held her seat, after leaving Sinn Féin in opposition to their policy on abortion, Marian Harkin was elected in Sligo-Leitrim, Cathal Berry was elected in Kildare South and Richard O’Donoghue was elected in Limerick County. In contrast, four outgoing independent TDs lost their seats, There were two constituencies where an independent candidate, Shane Ross in Dublin Rathdown, Katherine Zappone in Dublin South-West, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran in Longford-Westmeath and Séamus Healy in Tipperary, apart from Healy the others were all part of the Independent Alliance and outgoing Ministers. In Clare the independent TD Michael Harty, elected in 2016, was not running again, his seat was won by independent candidate and former Labour TD Michael McNamara. Similarly, in Waterford independent TD John Hallagan stood down from the Dáil after two terms, his seat was won by another independent candidate Matt Shanahan. Four constituencies also had independent TDs in 2016 who were not running again or who had already left the Dáil, in Dublin Central Maureen O’Sullivan was not running, in Dublin Bay North Finian McGrath and Tommy Broughan were also not running again. Broughan was from the Independents 4 Change, who lost two Dáil seats after Clare Daly and Mick Wallace were elected to the European Parliament in May 2019, no independents were elected in Daly’s constituency of Dublin Fingal (though the Independents 4 Change candidate was just 188 votes behind the Labour candidate for the final seat, but in Wallace’s constituency of Wexford independent candidate Verona Murphy was elected, she has previously ran for Fine Gael in the November 2019 by-election.

The percentage vote for the successful independent candidates varies significantly across the constituencies. Clearly the strongest constituency for independents was Roscommon-Galway, where the two independent TDs received 47.2%, this was followed by Kerry in second place where the Healy-Raes received 32.8%. Other constituencies over 20% for elected independent candidates were Tipperary (29.5%), Cork South-West (26.4%), Galway West (22.3%). Notably, the lowest percentage vote for an elected independent candidate was 6.5% in Dublin South-Central, with Joan Collins narrowly taking the final seat with Sinn Féin and Solidarity-PBP transfers. Other successful independent candidates with a small percentage vote were Thomas Pringle in Donegal (7.1%), Carol Nolan in Laois-Offaly (7.8%) and Verona Murphy in Wexford (7.8%).

With the three largest parties on just over a quarter of Dáil seats each, inevitably each of them will have to turn to these smaller parties and independent TDs to try and form a cohesive government. Sinn Féin will be hoping to form a government of left-wing parties, but Sinn Féin plus Greens, Labour, Social Democrats and Solidarity-PBP only reaches sixty-six seats, still fourteen away from an overall majority. Independent TDs who are clearly on the left are Catherine Connolly, Thomas Pringle, Michael McNamara, Michael Shanahan, Joan Collins and Carol Nolan, but even with them and Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín, this is still only seventy-one. As both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have ruled out working with Sinn Féin, they will need the support of at each one other party for a coalition between them, as together they have seventy-three seats. The Green Party would bring them over the line, but they are unlikely to join a coalition after what happened to them in 2011 after a term in government. The other smaller left-wing parties are also unlikely to join. Therefore, independents would be needed to bring a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition over the line. The collapse of the Independent Alliance has removed many potential supportive independents from the Dáil, so instead they may have to reach out to former members of either parties who are now independents, such as Michael Lowry, Peter Fitzpatrick or Verona Murphy, or possibly the Healy-Raes whose re-election was the only certainty of this general election.

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