Parliamentary Elections

February 8, 2020


Voters showed they want political change in Ireland by delivering a blow to incumbent Fine Gael (20.9%, 35 seats) and elevating Sinn Fein to the top place in first preference votes (24.5%). Fianna Fail lost two percentage points from the 2016 election (22.1%) but still received the highest number of seats in the Dail (38 seats). Independents and Greens also increased their vote margins (21 seats and 12 seats respectively). As both FG and FF pledged not to enter government with SF, after protracted negotiations the two parties formed a coalition with the Greens with a rotating prime minister (FF’s Micheal Martin will go first, then Leo Varadkar will return in the post).


  • Bicameral parliament in a unitary parliamentary republic: Dail Eireann (House of Representatives, 160 seats in the incoming Dail) and Seanad Eireann (Senate, 60 seats, not directly elected).
  • Members of the Dail (Teachta Dala, or TD) are elected directly every 5 years under a proportional system using transferable vote (ranked voting).
  • The Dail nominates and approves the prime minister (Taoiseach), who is formally appointed by the president; the PM usually hails from the largest party in the Dail or in the coalition and nominates members of the cabinet, who must be approved by the Dail.
  • Incumbent: PM Leo Varadkar led a Fine Gael minority government that was supported by Fianna Fail through a confidence-and-supply agreement; the threat of a motion of no confidence in January 2020 (with a decent chance of success) led Varadkar to call on the president to dissolve the Dail.

Main Parties

  • Fine Gael (FG): center-right; liberal economic policies; traditionally socially conservative but increasingly liberal on some issues; supports territorial unity on the island of Ireland but not a border poll at the moment; aims to make Ireland a new bridge between Europe and the United States post-Brexit; supports continued military neutrality.
  • Fianna Fail (FF): center to center-right; liberal conservatism; ideologically similar to FG but different historical roots; dominated the Irish political scene for most of the 20th century; supports Irish unity but through a longer-term process of cross-community consultation; committed to Ireland’s policy of military neutrality.
  • Sinn Fein (SF): center-left; Irish republicanism, democratic socialism; active in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (long seen as the political arm of the IRA); supports a united Ireland as soon as possible and all-Ireland policies wherever feasible; pro-Europe but opposed to further power transfer to the EU; supports neutrality and wants it enshrined in the Constitution.

Ireland has a significant number of independent parliamentarians (independents made up 14 percent of the last parliament by the end of the term) who do not formally align with a political party but whose votes are essential, particularly in the case of a minority government.

Impact on U.S. Interests

  • U.S.-Irish bilateral relations are historically deep and strong; approximately 40 million Americans claim Irish roots.
  • The United States is Ireland’s top non-EU export destination; in 2017, U.S. FDI to Ireland reached $446 billion (several major U.S. corporations have their European headquarters in Ireland) while Irish companies and affiliates employed nearly 270,000 people in the United States in 2017.
  • The United States played a critical role in helping to broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU has significant economic implications for Northern Ireland; continued U.S. engagement with and vigilance toward Northern Ireland will be vital as the UK and the U.S. seek to negotiate a free trade agreement and the UK and the EU determine their future trading relationship.  


Key Issues to Watch

  • For the first time, Sinn Fein is polling at the same level or above Ireland’s two traditional parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail; those polling numbers show a strong desire for political change after domination by those two parties, both of which have similar policy platforms. Both FG and FF have ruled out a coalition with SF because of its alleged remaining ties with IRA figures, although FF could be tempted to contemplate some form of political arrangement with SF to return to government.
  • Should FG do poorly in the election, Leo Varadkar’s leadership of Fine Gael could end, paving the way for his Deputy PM, Simon Coveney, to be his successor.
  • Housing, homelessness, and healthcare have been key issues in the campaign—Brexit has not, despite the current government’s admirable management of the negotiations. Despite Ireland’s recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, improvement of important social services has lagged and SF has seized the narrative on these issues.   
  • Ireland will continue to be a strong proponent for a trading relationship that is as close as possible between the UK and the EU to minimize trade disruptions with Northern Ireland and to maintain access to Ireland’s largest export market, the UK.
  • A new Irish government will also have to address growing concerns about the inability of Ireland’s Data Protection Commission to enforce EU data protection regulations as well as its enforcement of the EU’s €14.5 billion fine against Apple over tax matters.  



Data source: Red C/Sunday Business Post, Politico Poll of Polls.