Ireland: Political earthquake as Sinn Féin wins election

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou Macdonald celebrates victory.

In general elections held on February 8, Sinn Féin became the most popular political party in the 26-county Irish Republic for the first time. This seismic result has shaken the Irish political system to its core and sent shockwaves across Europe.

The left-wing republican party won 24.5% of first preference votes — up 10.7% from 2016 — and topped the poll in more than 20 constituencies.

Many candidates were elected on the first count, often in areas that had never returned a Sinn Féin TD (member of the Irish parliament, the Dáil), and 17 out of the top 20 high-polling candidates came from Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin won 37 seats in the 160-seat Dáil, an increase of 15. For the first time, each of Ireland’s 32 counties is now represented by a Sinn Féin TD or MP.

Outgoing government party Fine Gael won 35 seats, while Fianna Fáil won 38 — although one seat was due to the automatic reappointment of the Ceann Comhairle (Speaker of the Dáil).

After setbacks in last year’s local and European elections, Sinn Féin ran only 42 candidates. The late surge in support meant that in several constituencies where they ran only one candidate, Sinn Féin received close to — or even in excess of — the mandate for a second seat.

A successful strategy of “vote left, transfer left”, meant that large numbers of Sinn Féin preference votes helped elect other left-wing and progressive candidates.

The socialist Solidarity — People Before Profit alliance secured five seats, with Richard Boyd Barrett topping the poll in Dún Laoghaire.

Labour and the Social Democrats took six seats each, while the Greens won 12 — reaching double figures for the first time.

Ireland also bucked the trend prevailing in Europe of right-wing nationalist parties taking advantage of public discontent. The slew of far-right, anti-immigration candidates received negligible results, failing to even regain their deposits.

The election result comes as a blow to both Ireland’s major right-wing parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who between them have dominated politics in the Irish state for a century.

It is the first time in the history of the republic that neither party has won the popular vote, and their combined vote share has been reduced to a mere 43%. Both parties lost vote share and seats, and some constituencies failed to return a TD from either party for the first time ever.

During the election, the outgoing conservative Fine Gael government had hoped to capitalise on strong economic figures, the legalisation of abortion and equal marriage rights, and the high profile role Ireland played in Europe during the Brexit negotiations.

Fianna Fáil’s support has recovered since the economic collapse after 2008, and it sought to take advantage of voter frustration with the Fine Gael government. At the same time, it hoped that voters would forget that they had kept that same government in power via a “confidence-and-supply” arrangement.

Both parties also united to attack Sinn Féin, joining the mainstream media chorus that it was not a “normal party”, scaremongering about “shadowy figures” controlling it and its historical links to the long-finished armed struggle in the six counties still under British occupation.

Voters, however, were less interested in scare tactics and macroeconomic figures than in hospital waiting lists, soaring rents, the homelessness crisis, insurance costs, and increases to the pension age.

The 2008 economic collapse, bank bail-outs and vicious austerity measures left deep wounds in Irish society, and while the economy has officially recovered, ordinary people have not seen the benefits.

With barely 5 million people, Ireland has more than 10,000 homeless each week, and more than a third of those in emergency accommodation are children.

In 2018, 50% of adults aged under 30 were living at home with their parents due to skyrocketing rents, and there are more than 200,000 children living in poverty.

After a decade of austerity, it is little surprise that resentment continued to grow against the two pro-business parties, who have run the state between them since independence.

Sinn Féin, on the other hand, campaigned on the theme “time for change”, and with its robust left-social democratic manifesto, “Giving workers and families a break”.

Its platform included a rent freeze, a refundable tax credit to reduce rents by up to €1,500, building 100,000 affordable and social houses, tax cuts for low-income earners, restoring the pension age to 65, hiring thousands of nurses, investing in hospital beds and free GP care.

This message cut through a hostile media and resonated with an electorate desperate for change. On election day, exit polls showed Sinn Féin with the highest support of any party for the entire working age population.

Speaking in Dublin after the vote, Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald described the result as a "revolution in the ballot box”.

“The two-party system in this State is now broken, it has been dispatched into the history books,” she said.

“The election is about a real appetite for political change, and that means a change in government.

“This vote for Sinn Féin is for Sinn Féin to be in government, for Sinn Féin to deliver.

“My first port of call is the other parties to see whether or not we can actually have a new government, a government without Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.”

Sinn Féin declared that it would immediately look to form a “government of change” that “delivers on the big issues of housing, of health and climate change, on the right to a pension at 65, and that gives workers a break”.

Despite winning the popular vote, however, Sinn Féin will struggle to form what would be the first left-wing government in the history of the state.

With only 37 seats, even with the support of progressive parties and independents it would fall well short of the 80 seats needed to form government.

If Sinn Féin cannot form its preferred left-wing coalition, it may be forced to consider working with Fianna Fáil and one or more of the other small parties.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had previously ruled out forming a coalition with Sinn Féin, and Fine Gael has maintained its hard line after the vote, ruling out any coalition.

On the other hand, Fianna Fáil is desperate for a return to power, and party leader Micheál Martin appeared to soften in tone towards Sinn Féin after results were released.

The party remains split, however, between those stung by the backlash over their deal with Fine Gael, and those whose hatred of Sinn Féin outweighs their political opportunism.

Even if such a deal can be struck, any decision on entering government would first need to be agreed on by Sinn Féin’s membership in a special Ard Fheis (national conference). There is no guarantee it would win support.

Part of the price for any coalition with Sinn Féin would be securing a referendum on Irish unity — an issue that has been pushed to the fore by Brexit.

Even though Sinn Féin did not campaign heavily on the issue, exit polls showed 57% of voters support holding a referendum on Irish unity within the next five years.

Another option for government would be for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil — and a smaller party such as the Greens — to enter into a “grand coalition”. Given the history of the two major parties, and their rivalry since the Irish Civil War, this would seem unlikely.

If no deal is struck in coming weeks, a new election would have to be called. For the time being, Sinn Féin is keen to find a way into government to start fixing the social problems created by decades of right-wing rule.

Whatever happens next, one thing is clear — this is a watershed moment for Sinn Féin and Irish politics.

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