Andreas Kluth/ Bloomberg
The rise of Ireland’s Sinn Fein in Saturday’s parliamentary poll has transformed the country’s two-party political system by empowering a major third party for the first time during a century of Irish independence. Final results show that Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), secured nearly 25 per cent of the vote and won 37 seats in the Dail, almost doubling its representation in the lower house of parliament. Rivals Fianna Fail took 38 seats with 22 per cent of the vote and Fine Gael 35 seats with 21 per cent. Exit polls revealed that 48 per cent wanted to have a change of government.
The Irish Times’ most authoritative political commentator, Fintan O›Toole, summed up the result when he wrote: Ireland’s voters know full well “that the old system is finished… This is not just a change election — it has changed Irish elections themselves for the foreseeable future.”
The future seems to be with Sinn Fein which won the backing of almost 32 per cent of younger voters, aged between 18 and 34. The other two parties relied on voters over 65 for 30 per cent of their support.
Also writing in The Irish Times, Stephen Collins put the difference in “voting behaviour of young people and their elders” down to two issues: The housing crisis which affects younger more than older voters and their memory of the IRA’s violent campaign against Britain’s continuing rule over Northern Ireland.
Founded in 1905 when Ireland was struggling for freedom, Sinn Fein (We Ourselves), is a major force in Northern Ireland as well as the Republic. Although the IRA led a bloody 30-year revolt against Britain, Sinn Fein has been a serious political presence in both the Republic and the North, despite efforts to marginalise the party. Now it appears to have done well because voters wanted to shake up the staid Irish political scene and the party has a leftist agenda which relied on two key issues to win over voters: the shortages of affordable housing and hospital beds.
Fianna Fail (Soldiers of Destiny) is a right-wing party which split from Sinn Fein in 1926 following Ireland’s civil war, and has been one of Ireland’s two main parties since then.
Fine Gael (Family of the Irish), established in 1933 and in power for a decade, is a centre-right party with a liberal-conservative ideology. Fine Gael politician Leo Varadkar in 2017 became Ireland’s first mixed race (Indian and Irish) and, at 38, youngest ever prime minister and successfully steered Ireland through Britain’s prolonged and, for Ireland, excruciating departure from the European Union.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, 50, has led the party since early 2018 when she took over from the party’s veteran leader Gerry Adams, who had been in charge for 34 years. Although she supports Irish unity, the ultimate goal of the party, she focused during the campaign on social issues.
Born in May 1969 in Dublin into a middle class family, McDonald attended Trinity College Dublin, the alma mater of Ireland’s elite, where she studied English literature. She later took courses in European integration and resource management and worked in these fields.
She became her party’s first ever European Parliament member in 2004, and was elected to the Dail in a Dublin constituency in the 2011 general election and was re-elected in 2016.
Having failed to anticipate the Sinn Fein surge, McDonald fielded only 42 candidates in Ireland’s 39 multi-member constituencies. The party would almost certainly have garnered more seats in the Dail if there had been more candidates.
Sinn Fein’s victory has encouraged McDonald to explore the possibility of forming a coalition with the Greens, Social Democrats, Labourites, Solidarity-People-Before-Profit members and independents. If all these parties were to join her, she would have 87 seats in the 160 seat Dail. She has admitted, however, that she may not be able to muster enough members to form a left-leaning government because they may be leery of joining a Sinn Fein cabinet. Formerly-ruling Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have rejected a coalition with Sinn Fein.
Nevertheless, the complexities of Irish politics could grant it a key role since 51 per cent believe it is wrong to rule out forming a government with Sinn Fein while 45 per cent oppose. Some commentators argue Fianna Fail bosses are already softening their objections to a coalition with Sinn Fein. It is in a strong position because of the size of the “protest vote” against the big two, too-long ruling parties. Some are even suggesting that Sinn Fein could be offered the housing and health ministries, as these issues gave the party its victory.
Its hand has also been strengthened by the fact that 57 per cent of Irish voters believe that there should be referenda on Irish unity in both the Republic and British-ruled Northern Ireland within the next five years. Northern Ireland, which voted to remain in the European Union by a large percentage, could opt to leave the United Kingdom (UK) and join the Republic, the evergreen goal of the IRA and Sinn Fein.
The survival of the UK depends on how British Prime Minister Boris Johnson handles the Irish border issue as well as Scotland’s demand for a new independence referendum. If a hard border is imposed between Northern Ireland and the Republic, disrupting their mutually dependent economies, and the UK suffers major economic distress, the citizens of Northern Ireland may seek reunion and a return to EU membership.