Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE has just published an exit poll that suggests the votes currently being counted will add up to more than just a change of government in the country. As every opinion poll, and our own correspondent, predicted, Fianna Fail has been ousted and Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny looks set to be the next Taoiseach, or premier. The poll indicates he’ll have to form a coalition with Labour to reach the necessary majority, although the complexities of Ireland’s system of proportional representation mean the final tally of seats for each party is still far from certain. But this much is clear: Fianna Fail’s support has fallen off a cliff. The party that has retained the largest bloc of seats in the Irish parliament since 1932 has won less of the popular vote not only than Fine Gael but also than Labour, with both of those parties registering their best-ever results if the exit poll holds true. Many elections are described as “historic”. This one really is.
You might say “it’s the economy, stupid,” and here’s the piece I wrote that sets out the tumultuous background to these elections. Yet even as the Irish vented anger about Fianna Fail’s woeful mishandling of the economy, their electoral loyalties, passed on from parents to children over generations, often formed in the crucible of the Irish civil war, and reinforced at the grassroots levels of community life, seemed as if they might afford some protection to Fianna Fail. Many people I met directed their anger at the party leadership but insisted their local Fianna Fail representative was a good sort. Not voting Fianna Fail, one young Irish woman told me, would be unthinkable. “It’s how my family has always voted,” she said. Yesterday, it seems, many Irish did the unthinkable.