To the surprise of many, Sinn Féin won the general election in Ireland with a share of 24.5%, but Fianna Fáil is the largest party by a difference of one seat (38 versus 37 seats). Read on for a peek into Irish politics and why this election matters.
Before getting into the current situation, it is essential to understand a little about the prominent political parties and their ideologies.
Political Party Profiles
- Fine Gael
Name: family or tribe of the Irish.
Type: a center-right party with a socially progressive tilt.
Current Leader: Leo Varadkar
Ideology: market economics and fiscal discipline which appeal to the urban middle class and well-off farmers, pro-European integration, and LGBTQ rights.
- Fianna Fáil
Name: Soldiers of Destiny.
Type: a centrist, ideologically malleable party.
Current Leader: Micheál Martin
Ideology: commitment to Irish unity and interventionist approach to economic management.
- Sinn Féin
Name: We Ourselves, signifying Irish sovereignty.
Type: A left-wing republican party that competes in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Current Leader: Mary Lou McDonald
Ideology: minority rights, migrants’ rights, eradicating poverty, access to abortion, the unity and independence of Ireland as a sovereign state, and ending British rule in Ireland.
Why was Sinn Fein’s Victory a Surprise?
Much of the surprise from Sinn Féin’s recent win comes from its past: politically and historically.
Last year, the party experienced poor results from the polls in the local and European elections. In fact, the Irish Times opinion poll estimated last October that the party’s support was barely at 14%. Even Sinn Féin itself recognized their status in the polls and fielded just 42 candidates to limit its losses.
In addition, Sinn Féin was historically accused of supporting terrorism and violence. This accusation emerged when Féin acted as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army who fought a three-decade military campaign with killing, bombing, and shooting in order to throw the British out of Northern Ireland and unite the island of Ireland. The conflict also consisted of the Catholic population wanting unity and Protestant “loyalists,” wanting to remain in the U.K. Overall, more than 3,500 people died in the violence supposedly led by Sinn Féin now known as “The Troubles.”
Why Did Sinn Féin Win?
Despite the historical perception of the party, much support came from younger voters who are disconnected with Féin’s roots. Polls from the general election show for all age groups under the age of 65, Sinn Féin’s political party was most popular.
Especially since the financial crisis of 2008 and the Dublin housing crisis, Sinn Fein has highlighted issues such as housing, homelessness, and healthcare. Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman, Eoin Ó Broin, promised policies such as a rent freeze, and more housing, which successfully attracted voters.
Since Ireland gained independence from Britain, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have governed Ireland. Every Irish prime minister, or taoiseach, came from either of the two parties. Nevertheless, many have accused them of inaction on the need for housing. In January, a homeless man in Dublin was accidentally lifted by an industrial vehicle called by council staff to clean the streets without realizing someone was inside. The incident reaffirmed the genuine struggle of housing and contributed to the renewing support for Sinn Féin.
What’s the impact on Brexit?
Given Sinn Fein’s influence on both north and south of the Irish border, the desire for unification will be heard. This may augment the concerns of the Unionists in Northern Ireland, who have already accused Boris Johnson, current British Prime Minister, of betraying them in the Brexit deal.
Sinn Féin has said publicly that one of their goals is to implement a border poll within five years, which will help determine whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or join with the Republic of Ireland to form a united Ireland. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have both avoided this subject due to its sensitivity.
The outcome of the election indicates an unexpected shift in Irish ideology and political support. Analysts propose some possible results of Sinn Féin’s victory: chaos for Brexit, better housing, and possible reunification of Ireland.