Sinn Fein top the first preferences in Irish General Election

Now that election euphoria has died down, can Sinn Fein give Irish people what they voted for?

Ireland – particularly its young – wanted change, and their best hope of achieving it lay with Sinn Fein. Can the party deliver?

Roy Greenslade
Tuesday 11 February 2020 09:14
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Amid the storm that lashed Ireland and Britain yesterday came political winds of change with the potential to transform both countries: Sinn Fein’s record-breaking election results.

Seasoned commentators ran out of cliches as the story unfolded from counts across the country: spectacular, unprecedented, unbelievable, unimaginable, incredible. Their surprise was echoed by the shocked spokespeople for the two parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, which have dominated Irish politics since it gained independence from Britain a century ago.

Those parties, founded out of the bitter and bloody split in the civil war of 1922-23, were forced into an uncomfortable alliance following the outcome of the 2016 general election. Their pact exposed them to the Irish electorate as two sides of the same coin. There was no discernible difference in their economic views, enabling Sinn Fein’s portrayal of them as Tweedledum and Tweedledee to catch the public imagination – particularly the young.

Not that the youth was alone in wondering why their government had done so little to deal with a housing crisis that was starkly obvious from the beggars and rough sleepers lining the streets of Ireland’s major towns and cities. Similarly, why was there no clear policy to redress the distressing state of the health service?

While the Fine Gael taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and his deputy, Simon Coveney, spent months concentrating on Brexit negotiations, they appeared to neglect pressing domestic dramas. Meanwhile, Fianna Fail’s leader Micheal Martin, having locked his party into a confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael, was little more than a political hostage – and as a result, virtually vanished from the public stage.

Even so, after swapping power for the best part of 90 years, there was a complacency about the parties’ approach to the election. Each imagined that they could uncouple their entente uncordiale and then fight the election as if years of stagnant politics had never happened. They hoped voters wouldn’t notice.

As for Sinn Fein, it would be no problem. All that was necessary was to employ a tactic that has worked successfully in the past: keep reminding people of its links to the IRA. Sure, the peace process stretches back more than 20 years, but raising incidents from the Troubles would be guaranteed to trip up its leader, Mary Lou McDonald. But as the polls illustrated, the young were unworried about Sinn Fein’s past misdeeds. The bombs and bullets were in the past; the ballot box was the present.

Young Irish people wanted change, and their best hope of achieving it lay with Sinn Fein. They were impressed with its housing and health policies. More than that, they were happy to embrace its overtly leftist politics. Tax us, as long as you put the money to good use.

Suddenly, there was a viable alternative to the party that had appeared to side with the banks and speculators which precipitated the death of the Celtic Tiger (Fine Gael), and the party that had historically represented the rural petit-bourgeoisie (Fianna Fail). McDonald made her position clear by calling on the leaders of other left-wing parties to form a broad left coalition.

Irish election: Mary Lou Mcdonald says Sinn Fein will try and form government

There is no doubt that McDonald’s own performance over the years, and most definitely throughout the election campaign, made a difference. She is an accomplished speaker; an orator in the tradition of Irish political leaders of centuries past. But she would be the first to point to the political skills of her senior colleagues, such as Pearse Doherty, Eoin O Broin and Louise O’Reilly.

It was also noticeable that Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, attended counting centres. It was a very public reminder of the party’s central raison d’etre: to reunite Ireland. By topping the poll in the Republic and already sharing power in the north, Sinn Fein’s ambition is to start the conversation that could lead to referendums on each side of the border.

That’s why this Irish election has a British dimension. Boris Johnson’s fudging of Brexit’s implications for the Irish border has opened the door to debate about the ramifications for unionist-controlled business in the north. McDonald knows that it could tip moderate unionist opinion towards acceptance of reunification.

However, one of the greatest stumbling blocks to winning a border poll among both unionists and nationalists is concern about the state of the Republic’s health service, and a parallel fear of losing access to the NHS. There is no surety yet that Sinn Fein will win sufficient power in Dublin to effect real and lasting change to health care. But that’s the challenge McDonald and her team face once the electoral euphoria passes.

Roy Greenslade has previously written for An Phoblacht, a newspaper published by Sinn Fein

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