“Sinn Fein’s path to government in the South is fraught with difficulty”

There is a feeling of inevitability in social media, political commentary and even amongst many in the Dáil who fear losing their seats, that Sinn Fein will become the lead Party of Government in the next General Election in the Republic, which must be held on or before March 2025.

The problem for Sinn Fein is the numbers.

There are currently 160 Teachta Dála in the 33rd Dáil. The total number varies with each election as it’s range is set out in the Irish Constitution and the Constituency Commission meets to assess the outcome of the population census which in Ireland takes place every 5 years. Their recommendations are then made statutory under an “Electoral Amendment Dáil Constituencies Act”. The last census was April 2022 (postponed from 2021 due to Covid) and the population has risen to 5,123,536 – a 7.6% increase over the 2016 census on which the 2020 Dáil constituencies were based through the 2017 Amendment Act. (Source: cso.ie).

It is very likely that the 34th Dáil will consist of more seats – maybe 180 (+20).

Each constituency has between 3 and 5 TDs elected under proportional representation single transferable vote. In a five-seater like mine in Donegal there were 13 candidates – even though three national parties – Labour, Social Democrats and PBP didn’t contest the seat. I’m a big admirer of the system by the way as every vote counts and most people end up with some representation that reflects their views. The split in Donegal is 2SF (+1), 1FF (-1), 1FG (-) and 1 Ind (-).

The make-up of the 33rd Dáil after election day 2020 was Fianna Fáil 38, Sinn Fein 37, Fine Gael 35, Independent & Others 20, Green 12, Labour 6, SocDem 6, PBP/Solidarity 5, Aontú 1. There have been by-elections and whip suspensions and withdrawals since the 2020 polling day. Many independents vote with the coalition though so the challenges often brought by Sinn Fein in the form of confidence votes are always defeated.

If the 34th Dáil consists of 180 seats, a coalition needs 91 to get a majority. We could assess the likely party split by simple extrapolation or by poll analysis, but the problem for Sinn Fein is the STV system. They are not transfer-friendly so, the challenge in every election is to get the number of candidates right to ensure the maximum number of seats won. Take my constituency of Donegal again. In 2016 they had too many as they stood 3 and only one was elected and the other two split the quota. In 2020 they only ran 2 (following their poor showing in neighbouring Derry in the 2019 UK General Election) but with 35,000 first preferences between them, they nearly had enough quota for 3 (36,000). It’s telling that the two SF TDs representing Donegal are the SF Deputy leader in the Dáil (Pearse Doherty) and the Opposition Chief Whip (Pádraig Mac Lochlann) and even they still struggle to “get it right”. It shows how big a task maximizing the SF representation in the Dáil next time will be.

Current polling (Ipsos MRBI) has Sinn Féin as the largest Party with 63 TDs against 40 for FG and FF on 38. This means SF need another 28 to form a government and FF and FG combined another 13. The likelihood is FG/FF would only need one partner again (Greens or Labour) to put together a coalition – even if the numbers fall a bit short there are always enough Independents to back them on the budget and confidence and supply motions. Quite how Sinn Fein gets to reach 91 is much less clear. It’s possible the Social Democrats would join them as their policies on housing and healthcare overlap, but the SocDems are stuck on 4% in the polls and are largely confined to the inner cities. Even on a good day they are unlikely to get more than 8 seats. PBP could provide another 6 or 7. Thomas Pringle (Donegal again) is the only Independent who is broadly on their spectrum, but trying to put together a coalition of the left looks a big ask. Maybe the Greens would split and the “left Greens” provide another 2? All those scenarios coming together would make 17 – some 11 short.

Leo Varadkar takes over again as Taoiseach next week. Barring accidents or controversies he will remain there up to election day and despite the coalition’s diabolical performance on housing, (in my humble opinion), I wouldn’t bet just yet against him still being there after March 2025.

It’s the numbers you know.

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