Our day has come: Sinn Féin’s victory marks a new age in Irish politics
A first preference vote for Sinn Fein Leader Mary Lou McDonlad as Ballot papers are counted at the RDS in Dublin during the Irish General Election count - Photo: REUTERS

Our day has come: Sinn Féin’s victory marks a new age in Irish politics

21/02/2020
16:27
Gabriel Moyssen
Mexico City
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Left-wing Sinn Féin’s first electoral victory will have an increased influence both on Ireland as in the upcoming negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom

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The protest vote against an uncertain economic recovery and the exhaustion of the two-party system combined in Ireland to produce a historic result with left-wing Sinn Féin’s first electoral victory, which will have an increased influence both on the island as in the upcoming negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom.

After nine years in power, liberal-conservative party Fine Gael (Family of the Irish) collapsed in last Saturday general election, winning just 35 seats and trailing Sinn Féin (Ourselves), which won 37 and the popular vote, and center-right Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny), which won 38 seats in the Lower House of Parliament or Dáil Éireann.

However, no party has a majority in the 160-seat chamber and talks are underway to forge a coalition with independent lawmakers and small parties such as the Greens and the Trotskyist People Before Profit, since Prime Minister Leo Varadkar declared that he is prepared to lead Fine Gael into opposition and to let his rivals try to form a government.

As expected, the new Parliament met yesterday to vote a new head of government and no one won a majority (the result was Sinn Féin 45, Fianna Fáil 41, and Fine Gael 36), paving the way for Varadkar’s administration to continue as caretaker until the stalemate is broken in talks that could last weeks or months to avoid another election.

During the week, Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin’s President, underscored her desire to lead smaller parties in a leftist coalition; nevertheless, this alliance could not muster more than 80 seats, leaving it reliant on a deal with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who has refused—as Varadkar—to enter into government for the next five years with Sinn Féin, citing its links with the disbanded guerrilla of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and “populistpolitics.

McDonald also rejected as “unthinkable” the speculations of an unprecedented deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, that have dominated Irish politics since independence from the UK was declared in 1919. Both formations are considered centrist and share similar views, yet their rivalry dates back to Ireland’s 1922-1923 Civil War.

Sinn Féin’s origins go back 115 years to Ireland’s struggle for independence (Fianna Fáil is a split from the nationalist party), although it spent decades challenging the legitimacy of the state created in 1922 and it still opposes the partition of six Protestant-majority counties to establish the British province of Northern Ireland.

In a country where the past still weighs so much in the present, Sinn Féin is seen by many in conservative sectors on the island, London and the European Union with distrust, in particular, due to its role as virtual political wing of the IRA during the Troubles (1968-1998), the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland between separatist Catholics and Protestants loyal to British rule that caused more than 3,500 dead.

Could Mary Lou McDonald become the first female prime minister?

As a member of a generation who had no active part in the conflict, McDonald—she could be at 50 the first woman Taoiseach or Prime Minister—replaced in 2018 Gerry Adams, the party’s president since 1983.

Adams, one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement that ended the fight, promoted her as the new moderate face while completing a reformist strategy which started in 1986 with Sinn Féin’s decision to abandon abstentionism and take up seats in the Irish Parliament, followed by power-sharing with pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland in 1998, and just three years ago, its readiness to engage in a coalition government in Dublin.

Irish and British scholars and journalists agree that last weekend’s election marks the latest chapter in Ireland’s transformation into a conventional left-right European democracy, although they point out that McDonald would need to show her real leadership as a bridge between Adam’s old guard—one of their slogans is “tiocfaidh ár lá” (our day will come)—and the young voters key to Sinn Féin’s victory.

This slogan is also proclaimed by socialist republican Ruairí Creaney, Sinn Féin organizer for county Kildare, who explains that in spite of the economic recovery boosted by Varadkar after the 2008 crisis Ireland has been living under harsh austerity, bank bailouts, shocking levels of child homelessness, lack of affordable housing, deteriorating public transport, and a crumbling public health system.

Stressing that 63% of people said they had not experienced any benefit from the improvement of the economy in an RTÉ election exit poll, Creaney detailed that the party’s platform focused on building 100,000 public homes, enforcing rent controls, introducing free health care, and reducing pension age to 65, plans that along with the addition of EUR € 22 billion to public spending, and interventions in the banking system to cap mortgage rates were discarded by Varadkar as “extraordinary promises.”

In an article published by Jacobin, he denounced the smear campaign launched against Sinn Féin by the mainstream media, including the attempt to paint its National Executive as a group controlled by IRA godfathers”, going as far as refusing to allow McDonald to take part in the parties leaders’ debate, on the grounds that only those who could become prime minister could take part.

This discriminatory veto applied by state-owned RTÉ and Virgin Media—a brand licensed by British billionaire Richard Branson, who has openly supported the propaganda against Venezuela’s government,—resulted widely ridiculed online, given the nearly identical political platforms advocated by Martin and Varadkar. In addition, it severely undermined the credibility of the media outlets that facilitated the “non-debate.”

Creaney reiterated that Sinn Féin’s ultimate aim is the creation of a 32-county socialist republic, “so it is no surprise that Irish unity will be at the core of any discussions on government formation. Sinn Féin has promised to produce a white paper on reunification and secure a referendum on the question.”

One significant effect of the party’s electoral success will be the opportunity for a left-republican narrative to become hegemonic in the unity debate, rather than the liberal pro-EU one that has dominated in the years following Brexit. “It is increasingly obvious that a mandate exists for a referendum on Irish unity, yet pressure needs to be applied on the British government to allow one,” he added.

In the unstable environment of post-Brexit politics, the possibility of a Northern Irish referendum cannot be ruled out, taking into account that London allowed a popular vote on Scottish independence in 2014 and is facing renewed demands to organize yet another one, due to opposition in both regions to leave the European Union.

Sinn Féin is the second-largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly after the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and is also the second in Britain’s House of Commons, where it holds seven of the 18 seats assigned to the province. Its future influence in government, in opposition, or preparing for another general election is evident as it is the only Irish party with major presence both north and south of the Irish border, the European Union’s new land border with the UK.

It can be anticipated that Sinn Féin’s influence will also extend to the complicated negotiations that Brussels and the UK will begin next month in search of a new comprehensive treaty after Varadkar tried to exploit in the polls his hardened position towards Downing Street regarding trade and border control issues.

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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