GP Insights # 254, 16 February 2020
The general election in Ireland on 8 February led to a surge in vote share for the left-wing nationalist political party Sinn Féin for the first time in decades. The general election has produced an outcome where no one party has a majority, and even two centrist mainstream parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) together will fall short of forming a coalition government. In the first preference vote, Sinn Fein won 37 seats, while Fianna Fáil secured 38 and Fine Gael 35 seats respectively.
The Sinn Fein party took 24.5 per cent of the vote, compared to 22 per cent for Fianna Fáil and 21 per cent for Fine Gael (the liberal-conservative parties), led by outgoing Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar. The Sinn Féin's success in the election will put the question of Irish unity and thus the future of Northern Ireland's inclusion in the United Kingdom – firmly on the agenda, owing to the party's historical ties to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and that organization's association with violence in the past.
What is the background?
The Sinn Féin has been frequently associated with the IRA after its party president, McDonald's predecessor Gerry Adams, became the central figure in the IRA leadership for decades. The IRA played a vital role in the 1990s Irish civil war over the demand for a collective Irish nationality. It brought the country to the brink of a prolong violent conflict for a decade. The present vote to the Sinn Fein has brought back the collective memory from the civil war and triggered the question of an unfulfilled Irish unification which the party has propagated for a long time. Also, Sinn Féin is not considered as a democratic party, because its leadership still follows orders from the IRA Army Council.
Due to its links with the IRA, Sinn Fein has traditionally not enjoyed an overwhelming electoral mandate. Instead, Ireland's political landscape has been dominated by Varadkar's party governing in partnership with its traditional rival Fianna Fáil. However, both parties have been slowly suffering a dip in their vote share since 2016. The only way the two conservative parties stayed in power was through a grand-coalition deal. Fianna Fáil did not take any cabinet positions, but its votes kept Varadkar in office. With this traditional power-sharing, the votes for Sinn Fein was never expected in these high numbers.
In the present election campaign Varadkar sought to send a convincing message to the voters of a strong economy with some of the eurozone's highest growth rates, a Brexit deal finally struck with the British government and the promise of stability after years of upheaval. However, the vote share to the Sinn Fein in this election has brought to light the failures of these mainstream parties to meet the demands of the people. The Sinn Féin managed to successfully tap into the public anger felt in Ireland about economic issues that have been dogged by the centre-right Fine Gael for several years especially the issue of the shortage of housing, increasing rents and homelessness. The people of Ireland voted for change. This is in spite of the fact the country is forecast to have one of the fastest-growing economies in the EU in 2020. Brexit remained - a considerable focus of Leo Varadkar as the prime minister, but the agenda barely registered as an issue with the voters.
What does it mean?
In recent years, populist earthquakes have taken place in the countries where economic underperformance have triggered discontent over immigration and mainstream policies. On the surface, Ireland does not fit this trend. Its economy has grown by 4-8 per cent annually for the past four years, unemployment is at a record low, and immigration barely featured in this election campaign. Still, the Left party has been able to dig into the votes of the centrist parties due to a domestic discontent rather than nationalist fervour. The implications of Sein Finn's surge in power would be threefold.
First, Ireland looks at an unstable coalition and the possibility for Sinn Fein forming a government. The smaller parties with more than one member - Greens, Labour, Social Democrats and Solidarity-People Before Profit - could also potentially support a Sinn Féin government. The Labour Party has already ruled out going into government. More than this, a shift to the Left showed that health and housing were the most critical issues for the voters. Two-thirds wanted investment in public services to be prioritized over tax cuts. When the Irish economy crashed in 2008, governments led by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael was blamed for not putting in place any structural change to restore the public-housing sector. Unlike the Labour Party and the Greens, Sinn Fein had not been in government during the recession and did not bear responsibility for the bank bailout or cuts to public services.
Second, the question of reunification will be triggered by the Sinn Fein party. The victory by Ireland's leftwing Sinn Féin Party has not only overturned some 90 years of domination by the island's two centre-right parties; it puts the issue of Irish reunification on the agenda. While the campaign was fought over domestic issues like housing and health care, a united Ireland has long been Sinn Féin's raison d'etre. The election result does not exist in a vacuum, and Sinn Féin's leader Mary Lou McDonald has said she wants to see a vote on unification within five years.
Third, subsequently, the unification question will bear an impact on Britain-Ireland relations with Northern Ireland as the core. During the 2016 Brexit vote, Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to stay in the EU. In removing the backstop deal, Northern Ireland has been promised by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that there would be no EU inspections. The UK general election in December, and the country's formal withdrawal from the EU on 31 January, have jolted the past sore issues a bit. Using Northern Ireland's vote to remain, now Sinn Féin could push its traditional demands of including Northern Ireland in the larger Irish identity. This will bear an impact on how Britain has traditionally dealt with Northern Ireland: politically (as the Northern border), economically (link between EU and Britain) and socially (religious conflict between Protestant and Catholic).