By Bernard Purcell
Voters in Ireland go to the polls this weekend – the country’s first Saturday election since 1918 – with no one party expected to gain overall control of Dáil Éireann.
A century on from the civil war divisions that spawned the two parties that ruled Ireland throughout the 20th century and into this one, polls after polls suggest neither will be able to govern without the help of smaller parties, including Sinn Féin.
An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll published on Monday put Sinn Féin ahead at 25% with Fianna Fáil just behind at 23% and unpopular Fine Gael behind both on 20%.
The other six major polls since Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called the election last month put Fianna Fáil marginally ahead of Sinn Féin, 23.5 per cent to 22.5 per cent with Varadkar’s Fine Gael in third place with 20 per cent again.
After that comes the Green Party with 8.5 per cent.
Most importantly, the combined poll showing of Ireland’s two dominant Civil War giants, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, vote is less than 44 per cent.
As recently as 2017 this figure was 65 per cent.
For Sinn Féin it has been a Lazarus-like revival in public opinion.
Last year it took a hiding in Ireland’s local government elections and in the European Parliament elections north and south of the Border.
It also saw its vote fall in December’s Westminster election in Northern Ireland.
Even at Christmas it was languishing in opinion polls which may have prompted its decision to stand candidates in just 42 constituencies.
Its recent surge in voter approval, ahead of an unpopular incumbent government kept in power by its biggest rival, suggests that, if opinion polls were the actual election, its 22 per cent of the vote could have potentially won two seats in many of the 42 constituencies in which it is running.
Ireland has multi-seat constituencies elected by proportional representation involving quotas and preferences, in stark contrast to the ‘first past the post’ system in this country.
Ireland’s largest party, Fianna Fáil, is expected to win 41-44 seats, even fewer than the 50 seats won by Fine Gael in 2016, which in turn is expected to win just 34. If Sinn Féin is successful in every constituency it will win 42 seats.
The next biggest single party is expected to be The Greens with 12 seats followed by Labour – which paid the price for going into coalition with Fine Gael in 2011 – with 6 seats, jut ahead of the Social Democrats (5) and Solidarity (3).
Independents won 23 seats in 2016 but are expected to win just 15 on Saturday. To form the next Irish government a party will need the support of at least 80 of Dáil Éireann’s 160 seats.
Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have, to date, said there is no question of entering government with Sinn Féin with Fianna Fáil also ruling out a ‘grand coalition’ with Fine Gael, suggesting it may be its turn to support a minority government in a ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement.