NOT so long ago general elections were predictable, both in Clare and in Ireland generally, but after last weekend there is a sense that voters might do just about anything.
In Clare this was certainly the most dramatic result for many decades, with neither Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael having a candidate who hit the quota, as Sinn Féin topped the poll, a situation that was unthinkable almost until the moment it happened.
There was widespread surprise in the Falls Hotel on Sunday morning as the tallies were being compiled and Violet Anne Wynne, an almost totally unknown quantity, was taking in more number ones than any one else.
Many people around the count centre were saying the same thing; they knew that Sinn Féin were going to do well nationally, but just couldn’t see it happening in Clare. But it was happening.
As recently as 2007 Fianna Fáil were campaigning on a platform of stability. It genuinely resonated with voters, even though the alternative Government they might have elected would have been led by Fine Gael, and there would have been very few ideological differences.
That election seems to mark the conclusion of a very different era, with voters now far less predictable, conservative or bound by old party loyalties.
In 2011 the first wave of change came when voters punished Fianna Fáil’s economic performance, as they lost an enormous 51 seats, including one in Clare. Fine Gael won a five-year term in office, and they went into the next general election sounding like the Fianna Fáil of 2007, asking voters to ‘keep the recovery going’, but this appeal to a diminishing conservatism failed badly, although they continued in Government.
Four years on even more people around the country are now looking for change over stability.
After last weekend it looks unlikely that two centre parties, each very similar to the other, can again dominate the political landscape to the extent that they used to.
In Clare, the big story was the huge vote for Sinn Féin but there were other signs that the electorate has changed.
No one expected that Clare would send back two TDs not attached to FF or FG, but the emergence of Wynne wasn’t enough to derail Michael McNamara’s bid, and they ended up as the only two to hit the quota. On top of that, the Green Party candidate won 5,624 number ones, while Independents Theresa O’Donohoe and Joseph Woulfe both got in the region of 1,200 first preferences each.
With the exception of McNamara all of these candidates had little electoral experience, certainly far less than five of the six FF and FG candidates, but they all made a mark.
Party loyalty, something that in many families was handed down as surely as genetic material, is not what it was.
Nearly 26,000 people voted for parties beyond Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael this time, despite the alternative candidates being less established and having less activists to help their cause.
Couple this with the fact that the likes of the Green Party and Sinn Féin are more successful at drawing in younger members and it looks like the older parties are at very real risk of continued, long term decline.
The diminished electoral conservatism in the county is illustrated by the fact that Clare’s two most experienced TDs prior to the election have not been returned.
It’s 28 years since the famous Clinton campaign phrase ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ was coined and in Irish political terms it looks out of date now. Despite full employment, concerns about issues such as housing and health meant that voters went with the far left option of Sinn Féin in their thousands.
Why and how they got to that point is open to debate, but that’s where they were at last Saturday.
When it counted.