On February 8th, left-wing party Sinn Féin––the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA)––won 24.5% of first-preference votes in the Irish general elections. The party received 37 seats in Ireland’s lower parliament, Dáil Éireann, while its political rivals, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, received 38 and 35 seats, respectively.
Why does it matter?
Sinn Féin’s victory marks an abrupt end to an Irish political system that has been controlled by a duopoly of center-right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, for the past 90 years. Fine Gael is the current governing party, and its leader, Leo Varadkar, had built his re-election campaign on a resurgent economy, but 63% of voters surveyed on election day said that they were not experiencing the economic recovery in their own lives. Both Fine Gael’s and Fianna Fáil’s housing policies are being blamed for the shortages of homes and high private rents racking the country. A third of voters said health was the deciding factor in how they voted, as Ireland’s healthcare system crumbles; 26% said housing and homelessness; and Brexit and immigration came last out of ten issues polled. Sinn Féin seems to have rode a wave of anger over rising homelessness and rent costs, failing social services, and growing income inequality, right to election victory.
Young people were one of Ireland’s key demographics driving this leftward political change, as 32% of Irish voters aged 18-34 voted for Sinn Féin. The election follows recent votes to legalize same-sex marriage in 2015 and abortion in 2018, both affronts to the dominance of Catholic conservatism in Ireland. Additionally, there is a disconnect between Sinn Féin’s IRA history and its young electorate, as many were not alive during, or remember, the period of The Troubles–– the time of violent sectarian conflict that wreaked havoc in Northern Ireland from around 1968-1998. Sinn Féin’s leaders, while refusing to disavow the violence, try to avoid the subject, and Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin’s leader, has no connections to the IRA. It seems that young Irish voters, disillusioned with the establishment, took their grievances to the ballot box and overwhelmingly voted for Sinn Féin’s message of change.
Sinn Féin’s election not only overturned 90 years of a political duopoly, but it also put Irish unification on the political agenda. Unification has been a pillar of the party since its formation, and it has promised a vote on Irish unity by 2025. The unification process is long and complicated, especially as Brexit enters the equation. In Northern Ireland, E.U. membership has provided financial assistance to the peace process, and Sinn Féin capitalized on Northern Ireland’s feelings that the government in London has failed to take into account the impact Brexit will have on the region.
What happens next?
While Sinn Féin won the popular vote, it still has a long road ahead before it can claim total victory. Sinn Féin did not run enough candidates across the country, which resulted in its inability to win the most seats in parliament. The parties must now find a way to reach the 80 seats needed out of 160 to form a majority.
A recent poll revealed that 26% of voters favor a “grand coalition” between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and smaller parties; 26% favor a Sinn Féin government involving smaller left-wing parties; 19% favor a coalition involving Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, and smaller parties; and 15% want a second election. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael vowed during the campaign that neither would go into a coalition with Sinn Féin, due to the party’s past support for violence in Northern Ireland, but recently Fianna Fáil’s leader back peddled and signaled that talks with Sinn Féin were not off the table. Ms. McDonald said that her preference would be to form a coalition with smaller leftist parties, the Green Party, and independents. Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have a long history of social and cultural divide. A coalition between the two seems unlikely, as the idea was discussed at Fine Gael’s parliamentary meeting and met with strong resistance. However, other sources report that a “grand coalition,” with the addition of the Green Party, may be in the works.
The current government of Fine Gael will stay in power until parties either form a majority or come to the conclusion that new elections must be held. The last time there were two general elections in a year was in 1982. As the parties work to form a majority, more and more questions will continue to arise about the future of Irish politics and the region as a whole.