Left-wing populists. Sinn Féin chief Mary Lou McDonald (C), 28 January.

The Rise of Sinn Féin

Ireland’s New Class Politics

Irish politics has always moved in rhythms different to the rest of Europe. Saturday’s election is no exception.

While most of the European Union is engaged in the long-term convulsions resulting from Brexit, in the state with a front-row seat to the train wreck, only 1% of voters surveyed indicated it influenced their decisions.

And, in an era seemingly dominated by right-wing populism, the Irish election illustrated what the prospects of left-wing populism might be, given the right circumstances.

Podemos, anybody? It’s amazing how few journalists still remember Syriza. The dynamics are similar here, albeit with an older party.

All the talk leading up to the poll was the survey data indicating a distinct rise in the prospects of Sinn Féin, the party linked to the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

Sinn Féin’s history since the Good Friday Agreement has varied widely on either side of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But both trajectories indicate the complex and continuing distinctiveness of Irish politics at large.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin was closely associated with the armed struggle undertaken by the IRA, a campaign that involved a large measure of standing in defence of embattled nationalist communities but also crossed the line into terrorism and criminality.

The inclusion of Sinn Féin in the governing structures of Northern Ireland in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement was a necessity for the creation of a viable political exit strategy from the fratricidal Troubles, which lasted for three decades, finally ending in 1998.

Northern Ireland’s inter-communal violence was also mitigated by the inclusion of parties with similar associations to loyalist paramilitary groups whose tendencies toward terrorism and criminality were, if anything, more pronounced.

In the Republic, awareness of Sinn Féin’s ties to the IRA was rather muted, relating as it did to old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago.

This is, of course, not to discount the continuing influence of the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and the subsequent Irish Civil War (1922-1923) on modern Irish politics.

For most of the last century, the two predominant Irish political parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) generally received around 80% of the vote, with the balance going to a number of minor left-wing parties.

The former was the party of Eamon DeValera, formed from the wing of the original Irish Republican Army that opposed the treaty establishing the Irish Free State and lost the Irish Civil War.

Fine Gael, by contrast, grew out of the pro-treaty rump of the IRA, combined with several smaller conservative parties including the proto-fascist Irish Blueshirts.

While both groupings had very pronounced political commitments, the parties that developed out of them eventually eschewed the strong ideological divisions based on left-right distinctions stemming from the French Revolution.

Irish politics in the 20th century tended to be associational and confraternal rather than reflecting the ideological schisms of politics elsewhere in Europe.

The rise of Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland may have finally broken the stranglehold that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have had on Irish politics for decades.

While the full results of Saturday’s ballot will not be known until the middle of the week, reports suggest that Sinn Féin received an estimated 24% of the total vote, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil 2 to 4 percentage points behind at the time of this article’s publication.

Irish politics has now become a three-horse race, with implications both for how a government is to be formed, and how the country is to be governed.

In practical terms, there are three possible outcomes.

1. A grand coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

2. A minority government of some composition centring on either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.

3. A new election.

Options 1 and 2 are the most likely. No one likes to stage a general election so hard on the heels of its predecessor. Given the general perception that the momentum currently rests with Sinn Féin, the other major Irish parties would be loath to give them another bite at the apple.

This is particularly poignant given that Sinn Féin ran only half as many candidates as its two major rivals, a decision that party leader Mary Lou McDonald now concedes was a tactical error.

Ireland is no stranger to minority government. There have been 16 such governments since the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, and the outgoing government, led by Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar, is of that variety.

The question is whether it is still possible to govern this way, given that Sinn Féin’s popularity seems to be rising.

There is, of course, a fourth possibility. One of the other of the major parties could decide to form a coalition with Sinn Féin.

This is highly unlikely for both contemporary and historical reasons.

Irish politics up and down and the line tends to be about the old neighbourhood, the question being precisely how old: from 1172, to 1642, to 1690, to 1798, to 1848, to 1916, to 1921-22, and on and on.

The connections of all three of the main parties to the violent history of the state’s founding make them allergic to collaboration.

This is especially the case with Sinn Féin, which continues to have connections to the IRA which, even after decommissioning, still has formidable powers to make acts of violence happen.

One of the main arguments adduced by the political classes against Sinn Féin was the involvement of the IRA in the murder of Paul Quinn in Armagh, in Northern Ireland.

Quinn’s murder seems to have resulted from his running afoul of people involved in an IRA-connected criminal operation of the kind common to that region.

Although the issue was raised during the election, voters appear unconcerned.

And here we come to the central issue. Varadkar and his party were reasonably certain that their record would play favourably with voters.

The Irish economy is growing and negotiations about the post-Brexit border with the north seem to be making progress. Memories of the bad old days, of the banking crisis after 2007 and the collapse of the real estate bubble, seem to be fading.

Yet Varadkar and Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil, seem to have failed to recognise the growing anger about the skyrocketing cost of housing in the cities, the stagnation of wages, and widespread consternation over the raising of the retirement age.

All of these were recognised as matters of concern to voters, particularly younger ones, by Sinn Féin. This is what drove their precipitous rise in the polls.

The success of Sinn Féin creates an interesting strategic conundrum for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Neither is inclined to join them.

This is particularly the case with Fine Gael, most of whose representatives from Varadkar on down have demurred at the prospect.

While the leadership of Fianna Fáil have left the door at least somewhat ajar, they have nonetheless made it patently clear that they, too, would prefer almost any other solution.

The problem then becomes what happens in a subsequent election which could be five years from now or in a matter of weeks.

Unlike the associational structures that characterise Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Sinn Féin is a more mainstream populist party. Its activists have been schooled in local community campaigns, such as that in the last few years surrounding water rights.

Sinn Féin has managed to instil in younger voters the idea that it is a defender of rights against the depredations of the major mainstream parties.

The danger of excluding Sinn Féin from government is that it allows them to maintain their position as critics of the unpopular austerity-driven policies of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Sinn Féin can point to the degradation of public services, most prominently the health service, without being on the hook for solving those problems.

The risk here, from the perspective of the traditional centres of Irish political power, is that this might become a full-blown change rather than a protest movement whose voters could be enticed back to business as usual.

That’s because Sinn Féin’s populism is different from other modern European populisms. It eschews the nationalism typical of Eastern Europe and Italy, in favour of the politics of the progressive left.

Despite reports to the contrary, the demand for a referendum about the reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic has been deferred at least five years, if not longer.

Sinn Féin’s ability to defer this is a reflection of the generally low priority of the issue among voters in the Republic.

This has ramifications for the rest of Europe, too.

Irish politics is now in the position of showing a way forward for political movements seeking to oppose both neoliberal conservatism and hyper-nationalist populism.

Indeed, the results of Saturday’s election may constitute a sea change in Irish politics. The results of the next election may be the movement of continents.

Photograph courtesy of Sinn Féin. Published under a Creative Commons license.