In the long hours of tallying, counting, transferring and drinking tea in hotels and halls around Ireland, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have had to content themselves with picking up third and fourth seats wherever they could.
The two “great” parties of the past 100 years are desperate to emerge as the biggest in the new Dáil, even the number of seats required to achieve that rosette is lower than ever.
Sinn Féin created a “storm tide” and is the clear winner of the general election – although it are beached, simply on headcount, and cannot form a government alone. They are kicking themselves for failing to have 2020 vision and running more candidates.
Therein lies the trouble that the country faces. From the get-go, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil baulked at the idea of doing business with Sinn Féin. Both Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin held the line on shunning a Sinn Féin coalition. They were still doing so on Sunday morning before the ballot boxes were opened, when Heather Humphreys declaring that Fine Gael and Sinn Féin had no policies in common and could not have a partnership.
Out of the shadows
Taking power is the dominant thought for every political party, and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was clear before the election that she saw it as her “duty” to speak to all parties and all independents. Until then, Sinn Féin had been a party of opposition; now it was coming out from the shadows and declaring its solid intent to have seats at cabinet, come what may.
Ray MacSharry, the former Fianna Fáil finance minister and European Commissioner, said of the Sinn Féin result showed that “the people have spoken and this is a democracy”. His view will have some weight in his party, as one of its most successful ever TDs, and his son Marc is poised to return to the Dáil.
Within hours of MacSharry’s comment, Martin was echoing that line; perhaps they had rehearsed it. The Fianna Fáil leader was also acutely aware that he faced going down in history as the only Fianna Fáil leader not to be Taoiseach, a position he would prefer to avoid.
A Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition looks less and less likely and would run entirely counter to what the public appears to want. Both parties could argue that if between them they have the most seats, this coalition is perfectly legitimate and Sinn Féin can then take centre stage on the opposition benches. They would have a point. You can’t run the country without the seats.
Thomas Pringle, the outgoing Donegal independent TD, told the Business Post last week that such a coalition of the old guard was his preference, because it would bring about a proper left-right alignment in Irish politics.
Privately, many Sinn Féin people would agree with this outcome, knowing that they would gain seats at the next election if the old foes had to lie down together at this point.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil know another unpleasant fact. If they can’t talk to each other and won’t talk to Sinn Féin, the only outcome is another election. One certain result from that scenario: Sinn Féin runs a lot more candidates and wins enough seats to be in government, perhaps as the lead partner in a coalition.
The indications are that the Fianna Fáil veneer is cracking, with John McGuinness stating that “the day has come” to set aside differences, between Fianna Fáil and either Fine Gael or Sinn Féin, and Willy O’Dea agreeing that his party should talk to Sinn Féin. With Martin outpolled by Sinn Féin in his own constituency, McGuinness is saying out loud what plenty of others are saying behind their hands.
Of all the promises made before an election, parties promising not to share power are never really believed. Extending a hand of friendship towards Sinn Féin, however, could cost Varadkar his position as leader. It could do the same for Martin, who may find himself deposed for having ruled out Sinn Féin before polling day and for now failing to lead the Soldiers of Destiny to the promised land of victory.