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29 January 2020updated 02 Aug 2021 1:06pm

As Sinn Féin surges, will Ireland’s election herald radical change?

Faced with a deepening housing crisis and a troubled health system, the country’s voters are challenging the historic duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.  . 

By Caelainn Hogan

In matching navy suits, two men stood against a backdrop that resembled the set of a game of Quasar and answered the questions of a third suited man about the future of Ireland. This was the first debate (22 January) of the 2020 Irish general election, between prime minister Leo Varadkar and challenger Micheál Martin, the leaders of two parties historically divided but now seen as different faces of the same establishment.

These two parties, which have alternated in power since the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, were on opposite sides of the civil war at its inception. Fianna Fáil, Martin’s party, opposed the British treaty that partitioned Ireland, while Fine Gael, Varadkar’s party, accepted it in the hope of still pursuing a united Ireland.

As the centenary of Ireland’s war for independence approaches, and in spite of this foundational division, the parties are essentially co-dependent in maintaining the status quo. Fianna Fail, which is leading in opinion polls for the first time since the 2008 Irish recession (it was reduced to a record low of just 20 seats at the 2011 general election), bolstered the government through a confidence and supply agreement. Fine Gael, which entered office in 2011, has since offered to form a post-election coalition with its past rival. 

During the first debate, Varadkar boasted that Fine Gael was the “United Ireland Party” while Martin, when pushed, stated that he hoped to see a united Ireland in his lifetime. But both parties have dismissed the prospect of a referendum on Irish reunification in the next few years.

Sinn Féin, meanwhile, representing voters on both sides of the Irish border and now surging in opinion polls (recently exceeding 20 per cent), is actively campaigning for a border poll and an all-Ireland forum to discuss reunification. The party wants a vote on Irish unity by 2025, before the next general election.

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Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin’s Dublin-born leader who succeeded Gerry Adams in 2018, was excluded from the first televised head-to-head debate. “Mary Lou won the debate and she wasn’t even there,” was the consensus among many on Twitter.

“Who would have thought that after almost a decade of feminist-led grassroots activism, that caused huge social change, that the people to benefit would be the party with the female leader and the really strong ground game,” Irish journalist Una Mullally mused on an episode of the United Ireland podcast, which she co-hosts with entrepreneur Andrea Horan. Both were key voices in the abortion (2018) and equal marriage (2015) referendums and believe female voters are part of the Sinn Féin surge, particularly young and working-class voters. As the party’s first female leader, McDonald is regarded as having modernised a “lads club”.

Younger generations, born after the IRA ceasefire and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, are also less likely to define Sinn Féin by the legacy of the Troubles. All the parties, however, are haunted by their pasts. The habit of referring to Fine Gael as “blue shirts” originates from uniforms worn by the party’s youth league, who gave Nazi salutes under fascist party leader Eoin O’Duffy. Fine Gael has spent the past nine years presiding over a deepening housing crisis, with record levels of homelessness (10,514 people were homeless as of October 2019) and young people emigrating as living standards are squeezed.

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Fianna Fáil, which introduced a repressive political regime in harness with the Catholic Church during the Republic’s early years, is notoriously close to big business. It held office during the “Celtic Tiger” years when a property bubble led to the 2007 economic crash, resulting in mass emigration, housing evictions and suicides. Bertie Ahern, the former Fianna Fáil prime minister, remarked in a public speech in 2007 that he didn’t understand why people “cribbing and moaning” about the economy didn’t just “commit suicide”. A 2012 study found that the male suicide rate was 57 per cent higher (476) than its pre-recession level.

All three parties “stem from the same root pre-civil war,” historian Mary McAuliffe, an assistant professor at University College Dublin, points out. “All the parties have their past.” McAuliffe believes Fine Gael demonstrated a disconnection from the public when it recently announced a centenary commemoration for the Royal Irish Constabulary, a paramilitary police force responsible for civilian deaths and connected with the notoriously brutal Black and Tans forces. The backlash led to so many people playing the rebel song “Come Out Ye Black and Tans” that it reached number one in both the Irish and British iTunes charts.

McAuliffe says the election carries echoes of the 1918 Irish contest when Sinn Féin won a landslide victory in what was essentially a democratic vote for independence from Britain – it is a “transformative time” and Ireland is still being “troubled by our nearest neighbor”. Irish voters, McAuliffe argues, are still asking the same question: “What type of republic are we really?” McAulliffe views Sinn Féin as a “modern European centre-left party” and says a coalition of the left, which could encompass parties such as Solidarity-People Before Profit (which is calling for a 32-county socialist republic), the Social Democrats, Labour and the Greens, could usher in “a real politics of change.”

Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are ruling out any possible coalition with Sinn Féin. “They’re scared of us,” says the party’s candidate Eoin Ó’Broin, the author of books including Home: Why Public Housing is The Answer. Sinn Féin’s preference is for a “left-led government” though they are “willing to talk to any political party.” They would, however, refuse to compromise on public housing, universal public health, a reduction in the pension age to 65 (it is currently 66 and due to reach 68 by 2028) and a timeframe for an Irish reunification referendum.

“The great irony is that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael claim they would like to see a united Ireland but are not willing to do anything to make it happen,” Ó’Broin said. “They want to retain the status quo and that includes partition.” He argues that what is “motivating young people in this electoral contest is housing and the absolute failure of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael”. Voters are “hungry for something else,” he adds.

At present, Fianna Fáil is refusing to consider entering government with Fine Gael. But the fragmentation of the party system could force a compromise. Saoirse McHugh, an outspoken young candidate for the Green Party, is opposed to any coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that would merely be a “fig leaf” for conservative and neoliberal agendas, not only because it could hinder the party in the future but because it would undermine environmental policy too.

“There is no way, unless something massive happens, that they can avoid going into coalition with Sinn Féin,” she said of the two main parties. “Unless they go into coalition together.” Such a government would be devastating for the country, McHugh warns, though she also believes it could be a spur for change. “I do think if they did go into government together it could be the end of their dominance in Irish politics.” McHugh also supports a united Ireland. “There are no borders in nature,” she observes, noting that fracking on one side of the Irish border affects water safety on the other side.

The seven-way leaders debate on the evening of 27 January opened with RTÉ host Claire Byrne pointing out that it was likely that no party would have an overall majority after the election. Sinn Féin and the four left-leaning parties seemed unified, at least, in their criticisms of the establishment.

“The old provos hate the Special Criminal Court. Why?” Fianna Fail’s Martin asked during the debate. “Because the Special Criminal Court defeated the Provisional IRA in the Republic.” (Civil liberties groups have also criticised the Special Criminal Court.)

Sinn Féin’s McDonald retorted that it was “deeply hypocritical” of Fine Gael to “warmly shake the hands of Sinn Féin ministers in the north” while claiming they were “not a normal political party”. These allegations, however, resonate with some voters. A 46 year-old prison officer in the Gravediggers pub in Dublin said he’d vote Green but was opposed to a coalition with Sinn Féin. “The mask slips,” he said. But he also agreed with Sinn Féin’s policies and respected their candidates. He didn’t want to see either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael return to government.

At another table, a 60 year-old man admitted he wasn’t planning to vote at all. “They’re all gangsters,” he said. “Especially Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.” The three English tourists opposite him said they had no views on the election. A Dublin woman in her early 30s said she had always voted Sinn Féin. She would vote for them again because “the system needs an upheaval”. She added: “I don’t hold the past against Sinn Fein, what happened during the Troubles was the product of occupation.”

A recent opinion poll indicated that the majority of voters want a change in government. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s combined failures are seen as having left the country in the depths of a housing crisis, with a health system in collapse, deepening inequality and a “crucifying” cost of living. Both parties have presided over the sale of public land and assets to developers and vulture funds. During the debate Solidarity-People Before Profit leader Richard Boyd Barrett noted that €40bn of state-owned land and property was sold off by previous governments whose housing policies have lined the pockets of private developers. Sinn Féin denounced this model. promising “the biggest public housing scheme this state has ever seen”.

Green leader Eamon Ryan said that improving society and the economy would “require radical change”. The Social Democrats stressed “moving away from the kind of civil war politics that has dominated this country.” The Solidarity-People Before Profit alliance called the election an “historic opportunity” to leave behind the nearly hundred year “domination” of the two main parties, warning that “the appetite for change” could not be fed by preserving their duopoly. 

“Listening to these men you’d never imagine that one had crashed the economy and that the other is so fiscally responsible that he’s producing the most expensive hospital in the world,” McDonald deadpanned to applause. “There is now an alternative […] a chance to deliver a new Ireland, a united Ireland.”

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