On Saturday, February 8th, the people of the Republic of Ireland went to the polls to decide which party or parties will guide the country’s future for the next chunk of time—up to 5 years.
The votes are still being counted as I write this, however it seems clear at this point that Sinn Féin had a very good day. There is a near three-way tie among Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Sinn Féin. Independents pulled in about 11% of the vote, and the Greens also had their best-ever showing. Labour, by its own admission, got pounded at the polls. So, too, did the rampant bigotry pushed by Gemma O’Doherty’s “Anti-Corruption Ireland” and Ceannaire Justin Barrett’s Irish National Party.
What does Sinn Féin’s surge mean for Ireland? Most immediately, the popularity of SF in this election indicates a strong preference for progressive policies on social and economic issues.
Sinn Féin’s surge is not an indication that Irish unity is around the corner. Sinn Féin’s boost in the polls was largely among younger voters. These voters, mostly in their 20s, are far removed from the revolutionary generation, and don’t necessarily choose their political allegiances based on what side their ancestors fought for in the Civil War from 1922-23. Moreover, Sinn Féin has adopted a host of progressive social policies that have nothing to do with the “national question,” its raison d’être. Most notably, Sinn Féin takes a liberal stance on women’s rights and the rights of LGBTQ+ people, issues on which young people are almost universally more liberal than older people.
Sinn Fein’s manifesto addresses issues that are important to young people, who likely don’t earn as much money as more experienced professionals. Sinn Féin’s has pledged to abolish the USC on the first €30,000. They have also embraced the politics of climate change, and have vowed to invest an additional €1bn in public transportation in order to cut down on pollution from cars.
Sinn Féin has shown that the party understands how the electorate is changing. Ireland’s two entrenched parties, FG and FF, will not be Ireland’s future if they cannot understand the importance of generational change. In addition, Sinn Féin also understands that people vote with their emotions, not an intellectual evaluation of the various parties’ manifestos. Countless political science and psychology studies have demonstrated this trend—here’s one, for example.
I would be interested to see which factors people name in explaining their votes. Because, back to Sinn Féin’s raison d’être, the party has also pledged to pursue Irish unity by producing a White Paper on the subject and by pushing for a border poll. I’m pretty sure that this factor is NOT the deciding factor for many people who voted for the Shinners. But, when you support Sinn Féin, you know that you’re also supporting their goal of holding a border poll within five years. At the very least, their policies on Irish unity were not a deterrent—nor was the party’s history as the “political wing of the IRA.” Other political parties in Ireland need to wake up.
Of course, Sinn Féin signed up to the so-called “unionist veto” when it signed on to the Good Friday Agreement. So, Irish unity can only occur with the consent of a majority of the people in the Republic of Ireland and a separate, concurrent majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
That means, for my American readers, that we’re not dealing with a majority of people on the island of Ireland—which is, historically, the majority that Sinn Féin cares about, tracing the mandate back to the election of 1918.
Is there a majority in Northern Ireland in favor of Irish unity? I seriously doubt it. The national question is still very much alive in the North, and it still has potency that it lacks in the south of Ireland. See, for example, the 3-year governmental vacuum because Sinn Féin and the DUP wouldn’t agree on basic principles of equality. I personally think Sinn Féin’s shifts on abortion and same-sex marriage are tied to a desire to pull socially liberal unionists into the view that their “natural” home is in a 32-county republic, and for that reason, I tend not to trust the Shinners. If one’s platform is based on cynical political expediency, and not genuine belief, they will just as quickly change their tune once their goal of unity is accomplished, or once they are entrenched in power.
I say this, moreover, because Sinn Féin is not known for being a particularly democratic party in its internal operations. Although I do support an anti-imperialist platform, and therefore I support Irish unity, I have serious qualms about trusting Irish unity to Sinn Féin.
No matter how you see it, though, this general election signals a major change in the politics in the Republic of Ireland. The challenge that the three major parties have now is in forming a government, as no one has anything close to a majority. Some parties still say they will not form a coalition with the Shinners; others will. Those parties that refuse to govern with Sinn Féin refuse at their own risk—it seems to me that any government that does NOT include the Shinners is not a democratic representation of the people’s wishes.
Put Sinn Féin in government and let’s see how they run the country.