Future of Europe

The Sinn Féin surge

22 February 2020

The results of the general election on February 08 have ushered in a new era in Irish politics.

Barry Colfer

For nearly a century, one or other of the two main conservative parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, have topped the poll in every general election in Ireland. This duopoly is now at an end, following a surge in support for the left-nationalist Sinn Féin party.

Following the poll, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin find themselves almost neck-and-neck, with 35, 37 and 38 seats (and 20%, 22% and 24% of first preferences) respectively in the 160-seat lower house. The re-election of the outgoing non-voting speaker of the house, Fianna Fáil’s Seán Ó Fearghaíl, leaves that party exactly level on seats with Sinn Féin.

The remaining seats are divided with 12 going to the Greens, 6 each for Labour and the centre-left Social Democrats, 5 for the hard-left People Before Profit Alliance, and 21 for independents and smaller parties.

A protracted period of horse-trading, negotiations and shuttle diplomacy will likely ensue in the search for a new government, with a second election a possibility should no workable majority emerge.

What now?

As it stands, no party has come close to a governing majority, and each of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have ruled out the possibility of governing with Sinn Féin. This makes the emergence of any workable coalition, at least any time soon, unlikely.

Despite this, neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil would want another election any time soon. Sinn Féin would have taken more seats if it had fielded more candidates and would be well placed to gain seats in a second election.

For now, the two old parties of government have called for Sinn Féin to bring together their long-promised ‘left alternative government’. Should this fail – and the numbers are not in Sinn Féin’s favour – commentators have speculated about the possibility of the old foes of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael setting aside their historic differences to form a government.

Notably, Sinn Féin are ardently Irish Republican, and the party’s recent success further presses the question of Irish unity, which has been raised tentatively but with gathering force given the potential scope for the break-up of the UK following that country’s withdrawal from the EU.

The campaign

As is often the case, Sinn Féin‘s breakthrough can be explained as much by an effective and well-orchestrated campaign, as by palpable dissatisfaction with the incumbent Fine Gael-led government of Taoiseach (Prime Minsiter) Leo Varadkar.

Opinion polls showed widespread support for the government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations throughout 2019, and Fine Gael attempted unsuccessfully to put Brexit centre-stage in the general election campaign. When it came to it, issues of housing, healthcare and childcare eclipsed fears of a botched Brexit, with as little as 1% of voters citing the UK’s departure as their primary concern when deciding how to vote.

In reality, the country’s economic transformation since the 1980s, from a relatively poor (by Western European standards), post-agrarian country on the edge of Europe, to one of the wealthiest countries in the world, has left the capital and many urban centres unaffordable for especially younger people, and home ownership is seen as no longer a realistic possibility for many. Parents face some of the most expensive childcare costs in Europe, and many voters now feel that jobs, opportunities, and investment are not shared fairly outside of Dublin.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s mixed public-private healthcare system has limped from one crisis to another, and a series of blunders including enormous overspending on a delayed children’s hospital, a scandal surrounding misreporting in the national cervical cancer screening programme, and spiralling waiting lists, have eroded public confidence in the government’s ability to deliver. Finally, in the weeks leading up to the poll, the government’s intention to raise the pension age (a relic of the country’s Troika bailout in 2010) became totemic – a move that Sinn Féin (and others) firmly opposed.

Thus, while a Fine Gael loss was on the cards, it is the scale of Sinn Féin’s success that caught many commentators by surprise.

The Sinn Féin surge

Sinn Féin campaigned under the slogan of ‘giving workers and families a break’, and committed to reducing taxes on income and property and to freezing rents and investing in the state’s biggest ever public housing programme. The party pledged to raise funds by taxing the intangible assets of tech companies and multinational corporations residing in Ireland, by taxing second homes and vacant sites, and by raising excise duties on cigarettes. These promises resonated with voters jaded by the legacy of austerity, the aforementioned poor delivery of public services, and the increasing cost of living. The party’s leader Mary Lou McDonald was also a highly effective campaigner, and performed well in a three-way televised leaders’ debate in the final week of the campaign – the first to include Sinn Féin.

All this comes in the wake of Sinn Féin’s mediocre showing in the 2018 Presidential election (where the party’s candidate received 6.4%), the May 2019 local and European elections (where the party received 9.5% of first preferences, and shed one third of their seats across the country) and in opinion polls throughout 2019, which saw the party stuck below 15% for much of the second half of the year. If nothing else, this turnaround shows that large-scale political and electoral change can happen, and can happen quickly.

Progressives and Ireland’s European future

Aside from the electoral breakthrough of Sinn Féin, which is rightly the main story of this election, it is easy to miss the fact that progressive voices did relatively well in the poll. Indeed, while it was a disastrous day for the Labour Party (a PES member), as the party recorded its lowest election result in its 108-year history, progressive parties and independents will make up the fourth largest grouping in parliament, with 12 Greens, 6 for Labour, 6 Social Democrats and a handful of progressive independents, and may serve as king-maker in the next government. Meanwhile, the Labour Party, while existentially threatened, have an opportunity to reinvigorate its base, with a leadership campaign already underway to replace the departing Brendan Howlin.

It could take months for a government to be formed or for a second election to happen. In the meantime, the bigger parties will try to chart a way to power. The big fear is that the long-term needs of the country will become undermined by the short-term political goals of the newly cast ‘big three’ parties.

The country has benefited from the unwavering support of the EU member states and institutions throughout the protracted Brexit negotiations, and the country will continue to need the goodwill of its European partners to defend its interests, as the deadline for the UK’s future relationship agreement draws nearer. Crucially, as the most pro-European force in Irish politics, progressives, like the Greens, Labour and the Social Democrats, will need to work with their European networks and allies to defend Irish interests as the next stage of the Brexit saga plays out, whether that be inside or outside of any government.