SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Ireland holds parliamentary elections today. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar hopes to win more seats for his ruling Fine Gael party. But a poll this week shows that his party's in third place. The Irish nationalist Sinn Fein is surging into the lead. We're joined now from Dublin by Jennifer Bray, a political reporter for the Irish Times. Thanks so much for being with us.
JENNIFER BRAY: Thanks so much for having me on.
SIMON: A lot of people thought it would be a victory lap for Prime Minister Varadkar. The economy's doing well. He negotiated a Brexit deal with the U.K. that avoided a hard border. Why would he be trailing in the polls?
BRAY: So I think what we saw that - at the start of the campaign, I think most commentators knew that something was afoot here. So, you know, for decades in Ireland, we have had this sort of duopoly, basically - Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. When the voters didn't want one in power, they'd vote the other one in. And I think what happened - after the recession, things started changing in our political landscape. For years, the left system in Ireland, left parties have been quite fragmented while the economy is strong. We have a number of social crises. So we have a housing crisis. We have health care crises. And we have a crisis with the cost of living. In terms of housing, we now know that rents in Ireland are at an all-time high. We know that there are around - just under around 10,000 people homeless. Elderly people, ill people are left - can't get access to beds and hospitals, and they're left waiting on trolleys. For most families, the cost of child care is basically a second mortgage.
And I think people - they find it a bit galling, I think, to hear this talk of a fantastic economy and, you know, how we've turned it around but then see homeless people on the streets, see their children moving back home because they can't afford to rent or to get on the property market. And I think now there is an appetite for change. And I think Sinn Fein are coming in on that wave.
SIMON: Jennifer, Sinn Fein is still associated in many American minds, I think, with its ties to the Irish Republican Army. How has it become a contender in recent years after Gerry Adams?
BRAY: Well, to be honest with you, I think that after Gerry Adams stepped down as leader and Mary Lou McDonald took over, that's when a shift started in the party. And I think she presents a different face to voters. So when Gerry Adams used to go on and do the TV debates that we have, he would, of course, rightly always be asked about those links to the IRA, which he always denied, and kind of historical legacy issues in the past. And actually, some of it's not historical. Some of it's quite present. I think when Mary Lou McDonald took over, she has made the campaign about those things that I've talked about - housing and health. And their - they've got new faces, as well. They have spokespeople who are very effective and have been viewed as being standout performers in those debates I talk about. And it just - the shift is there.
SIMON: Would Sinn Fein be able to form a government if it wins the most seats?
BRAY: No. The trend is undeniable towards Sinn Fein. Even if they continue on, they - basically, in our Parliament, our Dail...
SIMON: We should explain. The Dail is the Irish parliament, yeah.
BRAY: Indeed, in the Irish parliament. Now, to get a majority in the next Dail, you need 80 seats. You need that majority of 80 seats. Sinn Fein have only around 42 candidates. So even if they return every single one of those candidates, which is not going to happen, they cannot form a government. That's where the focus will move next week.
The focus today is people out casting their votes. Apparently, turnout is quite high. It's our first Saturday election in a century. And then, by Monday, the focus will turn completely to, how do you form a government on these numbers?
SIMON: Jennifer Bray, political reporter for the Irish Times, thanks so much.
BRAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.