The meaning of Sinn Féin's triumph

By breaking a political duopoly born in 1922 the the Republican party has reopened the possibility of a United Ireland

In 2017 I was invited to speak at a Sinn Féin summer school, deep in a rural part of Ireland. The agenda was what you would expect from any party affiliated to the European Left: Trump, the alt-right, the housing crisis, the challenge of automation. On arrival I wondered whether anything would survive of the romantic, guerilla tradition of the Republican movement that the party was trying to leave behind.

[A version of this report first appeared in German in Der Freitag on 13 February 2020.]

The short version is: it had most definitely survived, and was in fine voice until 3am. And as the party’s strategists mournfully related, this meant that, at every election, no matter how popular their social programme was, Sinn Féin would always fade in the last two weeks of the campaign as the media stoked up fears about its former role as the political wing of the IRA.

Today Sinn Féin stands on the brink of government, either at the head of a coalition of social-democrats, Greens, Trotskyists and independents or - more likely - as an equal partner with one of the two centre-right parties that have run the Irish state since its foundation.

Profound result

"This was the most profound election result in the history of the state" says Eoin Ó Broin TD, Sinn Fein's parliamentary housing spokesman.

"It was driven by a dramatic increase in our support among two demographics: first, 18-35 year olds, where we had more votes than the two main parties combined; secondly among home-owners in their 30s and 40s. On the doors they were saying: we're fed up with the high cost of living and poor public services, so we're going to give you a chance."

The cause of Sinn Féin's sudden surge was threefold: economic discontent; frustration at the two-party system of patronage bordering corruption; and a desire among young, educated voters to leave behind the remnants of the confessional Catholic political system.

Since being bailed out by the IMF and ECB during the Eurocrisis of 2011, the Irish economy has surged, but in the process created levels of inequality straight out of Thomas Piketty's textbook. The "wall of liquidity" that flowed into Ireland over the past decade enabled the class of speculators who had caused the crash simply to hoover up their own bankrupt assets and kickstart a new speculative building boom. House prices rocketed, but wages could not keep up.

As a result there are 10,000 officially homeless people, and tens of thousands more of the hidden homeless - often young people in a job, "sofa surfing" across their friends and families living rooms from week to week. For those with a tenancy it is often insecure - and rents are extreme. Dublin, the capital, is now more expensive to live in than Tokyo, Sydney or Singapore. Average real wages there have fallen by 28% in five years, according to Deutsche Bank, while average rents on a two-bedroom apartment have risen by 23%.

Social liberalisation

But the economics are only half the explanation. In the past 20 years civil society in Ireland has undergone a revolution. Though the state broadcaster RTÉ still plays the Angelus bells at noon, same-sex marriage is legal and, thanks to a determined campaign led by young, working class women, restrictions on abortion have been liberalised. Key to the change in attitudes were revelations of widespread child sexual abuse, physical abuse and even child murder by members of the Catholic clergy, spanning decades.

In a country where the informal influence of Catholic institutions had been pervasive, it seemed suddenly to evaporate - certainly among the young and in large towns and cities. It has been replaced by the same kind of a cosmopolitan, socially-liberal, civic nationalism you find in Catalonia, Quebec and Scotland.

But until now, this new spirit in Ireland struggled to find political expression. Granted the current prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is the country's first openly gay head of government - but the official politics of Ireland's two centre-right parties remained rooted in the the past. The "old boy" networks formed through selective private schools, elite sporting clubs and bourgeois cultural institutions simply transplanted themselves into agribusiness, finance and property speculation.

Meanwhile there was a vacuum on the left. Labour collapsed to single figures and then split. The Greens could not break through. Two ex-Trotksyist groups were able to maintain a small foothold in the Dail. Sinn Fein grew, but could never quite complete its evolution into a viable contender for government.

[Eoin Ó Broin TD, Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman]

But all this changed last week. As Sinn Fein surged in the opinion polls, RTE was obliged to let its new leader, Mary-Lou Mcdonald, onto the official televised debate, where she proceeded to wipe the floor with the stale, male neoliberalism of the two main party leaders.

Ó Broin says. “There was a broader change in the political mood: people were fed up with the cost of living, low pay - but some of polls also confirm: there is a growing constituency in the Republic for whom the United Ireland is a bigger issue than you would think”.

Collosal misjudgment

In addition, says Ó Broin, the government made a “misjudgement of collosal magnitude” by trying to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary, whose auxiliary division - the so-called Black and Tans - terrorised pro-independence communities during the War of Independence. “Lifelong Fine Gael members were sending back their membership cards because the RIC killed their grandparents, or ransacked their city”.

Sinn Féin came top in the popular vote, with 24.5% but due to the single transferable vote system it will have only the second highest number of MPs, at 37 out of 160 seats. The Greens also surged, and are on 12 seats, with Labour, the Social democrats and the far left Solidarity-PBP on six seats each. That means an Irish Red-Red-Green coalition - if it could be formed - could only garner at maximum 66 seats - and would be short of a parliamentary majority. 

Given the two centre-right parties have claimed they will not form a coalition with Sinn Féin, it is possible that they will try - yet again - to govern alongside each other. But unless they are prepared to ditch the free-market cronyism that has marked the past decade, such a government would be neither stable nor popular.

In particular Fianna Fáil, looks susceptible to losing even more voters to Sinn Féin if it tries to carry on with a mixture of free market economics, pork-barrel politics and blocking progress towards an all-Ireland referendum on the border.

Citizens Assembly

Ó Broin tells me that the result could have a profound impact on the possibilities for a united Ireland (which is possible under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement if there is a majority in a referendum both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland).

"The Irish government can't trigger a referendum on its own. But we had a very successful Citizens'Assembly on equal marriage and the abortion debate. The incoming government could call an all-Ireland Citizens Assembly on reunification. It could start a national conversation. At the same time, taking the lead from the Scottish experience, we could publish a detailed White Paper on how a United Ireland might work."

Thus, at one stroke, the project of Irish reunification has moved from a romantic ideal to a clear possibility.

A White Paper modelled on the Scottish Government’s 2014 document, says Ó Broin, could cover the nuts and bolts issues, like merging two health systems, small business regulations and the different education systems.

Once they have stopped grieving over the “another victory for populism” the British government and the EU will have to get their heads around the fact that a United Ireland is now just as real a prospect as Scottish independence.

Ultimately, the result in Ireland shows that - even if encumbered by associations with the past - the left can win if it is prepared to think big, find young, engaging leaders, and project optimism.

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