How did Sinn Féin become contenders in the Irish election?

Sinn Féin look likely to be in power in Northern Ireland and the Republic. How did it happen?

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Support for Sinn Féin has been growing steadily and they are currently polling at 24 per cent, a year before the 2016 general election. While there is plenty of time for this trend to buck, Sinn Féin has been slowly growing as a serious political party in Ireland. A 24 per cent vote share puts them on the same level of popularity as Fine Gael and at joint top of the poll. It also has the potential to allow Sinn Féin to double their seats in the next election.

Sinn Féin have been working to turn themselves from a fringe party to a mainstream party capable of taking government in a bid to win power in 2016. Their rise in popularity began with the 2011 general election where they made large gains, bringing them from five to fourteen TDs. They also had a relatively impressive showing in the 2011 presidential election, coming third of seven candidates. In both these instances, they most likely benefited from the large scale loss of votes from Fianna Fáil, the party who had governed over the economic crisis and been hit with a number of scandals. In the 2011 election, where Sinn Féin almost tripled their number of TDs, Fianna Fáil, who are the traditional major republican party, lost 51 seats. While the gains resulting from Fianna Fáil’s losses were spread across all parties, with the exception of the Green Party, proportionately Sinn Féin benefited the most. The 2011 presidential elections were also the first ever elections in which Fianna Fáil did not put forward an official presidential candidate.

Sinn Féin have also associated themselves strongly with the relatively popular cause of protesting against water charges. They have used this to promote the idea they are a party for ordinary people and different to the other parties who have backed the charges. They have managed to get their name on to many of the posters held by the protestors and continue to raise it in the media and in the Dáil chamber. The anti-water charge protests give them a base to reach the 30,000 people who are estimated to have attended the most recent march. It also allows Sinn Féin to rail against austerity and place themselves as a party associated with left wing politics and the redistribution of wealth. They have already promised that if in government they will socialise the wealth and announced that they would replace the water charge with a 7% tax rise for those earning over €100,000.

Finally, unlike all other major parties in Ireland, Sinn Féin is unblemished by virtue of not actually having had to govern during a recession. It is hardly original or surprising to say that any party who has to govern during an economic crisis is likely to find some of its decisions extremely unpopular and due to the tradition of coalition government in Ireland, all three traditional major parties and the Green Party have found themselves in power in hard times. Sinn Féin policies have not been tested against the harsh reality of the IMF bailout and a pessimist might suggest that failing to find a magic money tree in the Oireachtas, if they are given the chance to govern, they may find some of their policies are not as viable as they would wish.

Sinn Féin support is not stable yet and it has weaknesses. One of the major weaknesses is the lack of popularity of its leader in Ireland, Gerry Adams. His personal popularity rating is not as high as his party’s in comparison with other leaders. Although he polls at 26%, this is below current Taoiseach Enda Kenny whose rating is 28% and Joan Burton, leader of the Labour party, who hold the highest approval rating at 31%.  Polling is also not entirely reliable in Ireland’s single transferable vote (STV) electoral system as it often indicates who people intend to give their first preference votes to however transfers from lower down the ballot can seriously impact on the final result.

Sinn Féin are currently on track to achieve their goal of being in government in both Ireland and Northern Ireland in 2016. They will have to continue to work to maintain this support in the next year and the election is still open. However whether or not they actually manage to win the next election, Sinn Féin have become a major, mainstream party in Irish politics. After so long as an extremist fringe party largely considered the political wing of the IRA, this is an achievement in itself.