Their day has come: Sinn Féin’s success in the Irish General election

Newly-elected Sinn Fein TDs (members of parliament). Source:
the twitter account of Sinn Fein’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald

A political earthquake has taken place in Ireland and surprisingly it was almost completely unexpected up until a few weeks ago when all commentators agreed that the election would be a contest between the two centre right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who have dominated Irish politics since the foundation of the state in 1923.

What happened was radically different, and has caused a great deal of confusion and frustration among the establishment. The left-wing Sinn Fein (GUE NGL) party came first in overall votes with over 24% of the vote and 37 seats, compared to Fianna Fáil’s (Renew Europe) 22% and Fine Gael’s (EPP) 20%, while a number of smaller parties the majority of which are of the left have over 30 seats between them. However the nature of the Irish electoral system means that despite having less of the popular vote Fianna Fail have one seat more than Sinn Féin. Nevertheless a left-wing government is a real possibility with Sinn Féin begin talks with the smaller left parties about the formation of a government.

This result marks a highly significant development that will be understood by anyone familiar with Irish politics. Indeed a victory for the left at a time when the right is on the rise globally is hugely significant anywhere in the world. Firstly a few notes on the Irish electoral system for those not overly familiar with the politics of this small partitioned Island in the north Atlantic, so that you can fully appreciate the significance of this result and better understand what caused it.

First of all elections in Ireland are decided by proportional representation, single transferable vote (pr-stv) voting in multi seat constituencies, meaning that vote transfer management is central to winning as many seats as possible. This has meant that while two centre right parties have been the dominant force, the system has always been characterised by multiple parties and coalition governments between the centre right and centre left have been a regular feature. With the centre right parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, swapping between government and opposition often supported in coalition by the centre left labour party or another junior partner.

The system of multi seat constituencies with multiple choice voting creates a very peculiar system of voting where transfer are important in getting elected, indeed this election saw multiple left wing candidates benefit massively from Sinn Féin transfers as voters of one left party often naturally give their transfers to other left candidates

The role of Sinn Féin, the big winners in this election, in Irish politics must also be understood, Sinn Fein’s modern history begins in the late 1960s with the reemergence of violent conflict in the north of Ireland between the police force, British security forces and loyalist paramilitary groups on one side and republican groups (primarily the IRA) on the other side, during the armed conflict which lasted until the mid-90s Sinn Féin were the political wing of the IRA and as such were treated as a subversive organisation whose members were viewed as suspected terrorists and subversives.

Much of the coverage of Sinn Féin has used the IRA as a boogeyman while also simultaneously expecting the party to fully renounce its recent past. While Sinn Féin (and the IRA, who formally ceased to exist post Good Friday Agreement) have embraced peaceful politics their past has still made them somewhat of a political pariah among the media and political establishment. This is despite Sinn Fein’s long road to electoral politics which began with the election of IRA hunger Strikers Bobby Sands, Kieran Doherty, and Paddy Agnew as part of the Anti H-Block campaign in 1981.

From then to the election of the first Sinn Fein TD in 1997 to now Sinn Fein have replaced the Labour party as the dominant force of the Irish left, this was hastened by the Labour party’s participation in a coalition government from 2011 to 2016 which implemented harsh austerity measures and eroded their support among their traditional working class base. Meanwhile Sinn Fein have consolidated and expanded their base to their current high point.

Alongside Sinn Fein the parties of the broad left such as the Labour party, the Green Party and the People Before Profit/Solidarity alliance, and left-wing independents have between them over 30 seats which makes a left-wing minority coalition possible.

The cause of this unexpected victory for the left has its origins in Ireland’s bailout following the 2008 financial collapse. As a small open economy with an over inflated property market, Ireland was over exposed to the global recession, which saw the return of mass emigration, over 20% youth unemployment and a raft of austerity measures including cuts to various social supports.

Despite the high social cost with an over 400% increase in homelessness and the proliferation of low paid precarious work, Ireland has in recent years has been held up as a poster child for austerity, a success story where a country has exited a bailout programme and delivered significant economic growth.

The reality of Ireland’s recovery, however, has been one of rising inequality and social problems the most pressing of which have been the housing crisis caused by years of neoliberal housing policy, which have led to over 10,000 homeless people, rising rents and property prices, and a lack of investment in social housing, this alongside a health service which is marred by hospital overcrowding and long waiting lists were according to exit polls the most pressing issues for voters.

This declining quality of life for the vast majority despite the return of full employment obviously created a population receptive to a left-wing message, While Fine Gael sought to capitalise on their role in Brexit negotiations in this electorate only 1% of voters considered this to be the most pressing issue.

Instead, the election was fought on quality of life issues, an area which Sinn Féin and the rest of the left benefited greatly from the performances of Sinn Fein party spokespeople such as Eoin O’Broin, Louise O’Reilly and Pearse Doherty on areas such as health, housing, and taxation. Likewise the Green party undoubtedly benefited from the recent growth of awareness around climate breakdown.

No one could have confidently predicted a month ago that Sinn Fein would get 24% of the vote and that the broad left would win 68 seats, and that a left government or left-led government would be a real possibility. The pent up anger that was expressed in this election is a reflection of the lived experience of an Irish electorate, who don’t see the real world evidence of Ireland’s economic recovery, as this recovery is largely the result of Ireland’s role in global tax avoidance and has not translated into a noticeable increase in people’s quality of life

As the campaign progressed, a series of opinion polls showed support for Sinn Fein at more than 20%, revealing the government’s assumption that the passing of a Brexit deal would see them reelected to be a bad miscalculation. The election debate came to be dominated by quality of life issues. Quiet mutterings among the left of the possibility of a left government have started; however formal alliances of the left don’t not have a successful history in Ireland; the various left parties contest elections separately instead. Is a result of their history, Sinn Fein in particular have often been as distant from other parties of the left as they are from the right.

Nevertheless the election result is a clear opportunity for the Irish left to form a progressive government and deliver on key campaign promises such as Sinn Fein’s commitment to build 100,000 thousand social houses, hold a referendum on a united Ireland (a condition of the Good Friday agreement, which to date has yet to be delivered). The next largest left of centre party, the Greens, with 12 seats would of course pursue policies to tackle the climate break down, something that the left is broadly agreed on but differs on the details of specific policies such as a carbon tax.

As I am writing it is not possible to ascertain if a broad left, a left/right, or a right-wing coalition emerges or indeed if no government can be formed and another election will be held. Government formation talks are ongoing with Sinn Féin’s leader Mary Lou attempting to form a left coalition, which would see Ireland’s first left-wing government, and first female Taoiseach (prime minister).

While this is not a guaranteed outcome the alternative, a coalition of the two centre right parties who represent opposing sides of a civil war 97 years ago would be just as unheard of.

Whatever happens Irish politics has changed utterly.

A political earthquake has taken place in Ireland and surprisingly it was almost completely unexpected up until a few weeks ago when all commentators agreed that the election would be a contest between the two centre right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who have dominated Irish politics since the foundation of the state in 1923.

What happened was radically different, and has caused a great deal of confusion and frustration among the establishment. The left wing Sinn Fein(GUE NGL) party came first in overall votes with over 24% of the vote and 37 seats, compared to Fianna Fáil’s (Renew Europe) 22% and Fine Gael’s (EPP) 20%, while a number of smaller parties the majority of which are of the left have over 30 seats between them. However the nature of the Irish electoral system means that despite having less of the popular vote Fianna Fail have one seat more than Sinn Féin. Nevertheless a left wing government is a real possibility with Sinn féin begin talks with the smaller left parties about the formation of a government.

This result marks a highly significant development that will be understood by anyone familiar with Irish politics. Indeed a victory for the left at a time when the right is on the rise globally is hugely significant anywhere in the world. Firstly a few notes on the Irish electoral system for those not overly familiar with the politics of this small partitioned Island in the north Atlantic, so that you can fully appreciate the significance of this result and better understand what caused it.

First of all elections in Ireland are decided by proportional representation, single transferable vote (pr-stv) voting in multi seat constituencies, meaning that vote transfer management is central to winning as many seats as possible. This has meant that while two centre right parties have been the dominant force the system has always been characterised by multiple parties and coalition governments between the centre right and centre left have been a regular feature. With the centre right parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, swapping between government and opposition often supported in coalition by the centre left labour party or another junior partner.

The system of multi seat constituencies with multiple choice voting creates a very peculiar system of voting where transfer are important in getting elected, indeed this election saw multiple left wing candidates benefit massively from Sinn Féin transfers as voters of one left party often naturally give their transfers to other left candidates

The role of Sinn Féin, the big winners in this election, in Irish politics must also be understood, Sinn Fein’s modern history begins in the late 1960s with the reemergence of violent conflict in the north of Ireland between the police force, british security forces and loyalist paramilitary groups on one side and republican groups (primarily the IRA) on the other side, during the armed conflict which lasted until the mid 90s Sinn Féin were the political wing of the IRA and as such were treated as a subversive organisation whose members were viewed as suspected terrorists and subversives.

Much of the coverage of Sinn Féin has used the IRA as a boogeyman while also simultaneously expecting the party to fully renounce its recent past. While Sinn Féin (and the IRA who ceased to exist post Good Friday Agreement) have embraced peaceful politics their past has still made them somewhat of a political pariah among the media and political establishment. This is despite Sinn Feins long road to electoral politics which began with the election of IRA hunger Strikers Bobby Sands, Kieran Doherty, and Paddy Agnew as part of the Anti H-Block campaign in 1981.

From then to the election of the first Sinn Fein TD in 1997 to now Sinn Fein have replaced the Labour party as the dominant force of the Irish left, this was hastened by the Labour party’s participation in a coalition government from 2011 to 2016 which implemented harsh austerity measures and eroded their support among their traditional working class base. Meanwhile Sinn Fein have consolidated and expanded their base to their current high point.

Alongside Sinn Fein the parties of the broad left such as the Labour party, the Green Party and the People Before Profit/Solidarity alliance, and left wing independents have between them over 30 seats which makes a left wing minority coalition possible.

The cause of this unexpected victory for the left has its origins in Ireland’s bailout following the 2008 financial collapse, as a small open economy with an over inflated property market Ireland was over exposed to the global recession. which saw the return of mass emigration, over 20% youth unemployment and a raft of austerity measures including cuts to various social supports.

Despite the high social cost with an over 400% increase in homelessness and the proliferation of low paid precarious work, Ireland has in recent years has been held up as a poster child for austerity, a success story where a country has exited a bailout programme and delivered significant economic growth.

On paper not fertile growth for the left, however the reality of Ireland’s recovery has been one of rising inequality and social problems the most pressing of which have been the housing crisis caused by years of neoliberal housing policy which have lead to over 10,000 homeless people, rising rents and property prices and a lack of investment in social housing, this alongside a health service which is marred by hospital overcrowding and long waiting lists were according to exit polls the most pressing issues for voters.

This declining quality of life for the vast majority despite the return of full employment obviously created a population receptive to a left wing message, While Fine Gael sought to capitalise on their role in Brexit negotiations in this electorate only 1% of voters considered this to be the most pressing issue.

Instead the election was fought on quality of life issues, an area which Sinn Féin and the rest of the left benefited greatly from the performances of Sinn Fein party spokespeople such as Eoin O’Broin, Louise O’Reilly and Pearse Doherty on areas such as health, housing, and taxation. Likewise the Green party undoubtedly benefited from the recent groth of awarness around climate breakdown.

No one could have confidently said a month ago that Sinn Fein would get 24% of the vote and that the broad left would win 68 seats, and that a left government or left led government would be a real possibility. The pent up anger that was expressed in this election is a reflection of the lived experience of an Irish electorate who don’t see the real world evidence of Ireland’s economic recovery, as this recovery is largely the result of Ireland’s role in global tax avoidance and has not transferred to a noticeable increase in people’s quality of life

As the campaign progressed a series of opinion polls showed support for Sinn Fein at more than 20% showed that the government’s assumption that the passing of a brexit deal would see them reelected was starting to reveal itself as a bad miscalculation. The election debate came to be dominated by quality of life issues. Quiet mutterings among the left of the possibility of a left government started, however formal alliances of the left don’t not have a successful history in Ireland instead the various left parties contest elections separately, Sinn Fein in particular as a result of their history have often been as distant from other parties of the left as they are from the right.

Nevertheless the election result is a clear opportunity for the Irish left to form a progressive government and deliver on key campaign promises such as Sinn Fein’s commitment to build 100,000 thousand social houses, hold a referendum on a united ireland (a condition of the Good Friday agreement which to date has yet to be delivered). The next largest left of centre party the greens with 12 seats would of course pursue policies to tackle the climate break down, something that the left is broadly agreed on but differs on the details of specific policies such as a carbon tax.

As I am writing it is not possible to ascertain if a broad left, a left/right, or a right wing coalition emerges or indeed if no government can be formed and another election will be held. Government formation talks are ongoing with Sinn Féin’s leader Mary Lou attempting to form a left coalition which would see Ireland’s first left wing, and first female Taoiseach (prime minister).

While this is not a guaranteed outcome the alternative, a coalition of the two centre right parties who represent opposing sides of a civil war 97 years ago would be just as unheard of.

Whatever happens Irish politics has changed utterly.



Breandán Ó Conchúir is a trade union official, who previously worked as a political advisor in the European parliament. He is a National University of Ireland graduate he has been actively involved in various campaigns and has written articles on wide range of subjects. He has also worked as a contributing editor of Beyond The Pale Ireland.
 

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