Irish election: When is Ireland going to the polls and what are the key issues?

Ben Kelly
AFP/Getty

Ireland is set to go to the polls in February, for a general election which has been a long time in the offing. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s current administration has been clinging on while Brexit was ironed out in the UK, and he has now decided this is the right time to go to the polls.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Irish election.

When will the election be held and who are the parties?

The election will be held on Saturday 8 February – a major break from the tradition of holding polls on a Friday. This gives just over three weeks of campaigning for the parties, but many candidates have been laying the groundwork for weeks and months already, in anticipation of the election being called.

The governing party Fine Gael led by Leo Varadkar are hoping to be returned again as the largest party, but they are in a dead heat with Fianna Fail, led by Michael Martin. They have historically spent more time in power, but the fallout from Ireland’s economic crisis saw their numbers dramatically depleted at the 2011 election.

To the left of both main parties, Sinn Fein will hope to retain their position as the third party, but leader Mary Lou McDonald is under pressure after a string of poor election results in the past year. Recent by-elections have also indicated that there may be a Green surge this time around.

Why is the election happening now?

The last general election in 2016 threw up a result which saw Fine Gael as the largest party, but even with their previous partners in Labour they didn’t have the necessary numbers to build a coalition. This led to an unprecedented confidence and supply arrangement with the country’s other major party Fianna Fail, who duly propped up their historic rivals in government.

This show of national unity was deemed to be necessary to steer the country through Brexit, and was only envisioned to last two years. Now after three years, the cracks have truly formed, and Fine Gael are increasingly losing support in the Dail, while it is hard for Fianna Fail to distance themselves from the government’s less popular policies while they continue to accommodate them. For many, this election is long overdue.

What will be the main election issues?

The biggest issues facing Ireland at the moment are the housing crisis and a struggling health service, which will be the biggest battle for Varadkar’s Fine Gael when it comes to defending their record after nine years in power.

Brexit will not feature in this election as it’s considered a done deal, and all of the main parties were on the same page as Varadkar throughout the process anyway. The Taoiseach will seek to highlight the government’s successful handling of Brexit, but such diplomatic coups are unlikely to matter more concerned than bread and butter issues.

Equally, Fine Gael oversaw the referendums on same sex marriage and abortion reform, but are unlikely to be given much credit for what were the products of an increasingly more liberal society.

Don’t rule out some unexpected themes in this campaign either, as a recent row over the commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary proved that 100 years after Ireland first gained a degree of independence, the civil war politics of that era are never far from the surface.

What do the polls say and who is likely to win?

Ireland’s electoral system (proportional representation via single transferable vote) make it difficult to predict seat numbers, but polls generally see Fine Gael and Fianna Fail taking just under a 30 per cent share each, with Sinn Fein on around 15%, and the rest being made up of smaller parties like Labour and the Greens, as well as independents.

The next government will certainly be a coalition, but it’s as yet unclear which of the big two will lead it. Both say they would not go into coalition with Sinn Fein, so it’s likely the final victor will have to earn the support of Labour or the Greens. The historical pattern of things, combined with criticism of Fine Gael’s handling of housing and health would hint that it might be Fianna Fail’s turn in the hot seat – but only time will tell.