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Why Sinn Fein’s shock win has little to do with Irish unification

11 Feb 2020 10 minute read
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald. Picture by Sinn Fein (CC BY 2.0)

Lila Haines

‘This result is not red, it’s not green. It’s an expression of pure frustration.’

At 10pm on Saturday 8 February, a shock exit poll showed Sinn Fein neck and neck with the two traditional major parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, in the Irish general election held that day. Each was predicted to win just over 22% of the vote.

The poll, carried out by Ipsos MRBI with more than 5,300 voters at 250 polling stations, proved accurate, with SF candidates topping the poll in many of the state’s 39 multi-seat constituencies.

When the multiple counts ended 48 hours later Fianna Fail had edged into first place with 38 seats, SF had 37 and Fine Gael languished in third place with 36. None of them, and no two of them together, has enough seats for a majority in the 160-seat Dáil.

The shock Sinn Fein breakthrough says more about the depth of frustration with business-as-usual politicians in the republic than about all-Ireland constitutional politics. It was an outburst against the failure of traditional political parties to solve deep problems blighting the Republic, not voters backing for a push towards national unification.

Despite their undoubtedly dramatic breakthrough, and despite what some in Wales appear to assume, this general election was not some kind of great nationalist victory for Sinn Fein.

For nearly a century the reins of government have oscillated between two parties. Now there is a third in the mix. But that change has little or nothing to do with Sinn Fein’s raison d’etre or its past or current position on the left-right spectrum.

The party led by Mary Lou McDonald was founded in 1970 as Provisional Sinn Fein at least in part because of opposition to a ‘leftward drift’ in the Sinn Fein that then held the historic title. I know because I was there, but it’s also well documented if rarely mentioned.

It’s at least ironic that the party opposed to a leftward drift in 1970 has become a party of left-wing populists, branding itself as a party for the masses and accepted as such.

Tactically the Mary Lou Sinn Fein played a blinder in this election, recognising and capturing the angst of so many voters – about housing, health, childcare, pensions and more – and are enjoying the reward, for now.


Growing frustrations

This has been dubbed the change election. It wasn’t just a youthquake, as many initially assumed, though it was that too: young people, even those in well-paid jobs, felt deeply frustrated by the high cost of housing and long commutes.

It was broader than that. Across age groups and areas there was a clear demand for genuine action on vital basic issues, though the importance of each varied according to circumstances.

When the exit poll asked ‘which one of these was most important to you in deciding how to vote today?’ 32% chose health, 26% picked housing and homelessness.

But anger has been growing about many other issues too.

Just three days before the election tens of thousands of childcare providers, teachers, and parents took part in a protest calling for greater government investment in the sector. A couple of days earlier hundreds of secondary schools shut down as teachers went on strike over a two-tier pay structure, introduced during the slump but still in place.

Protests have been gathering momentum for several years – over water rates, homelessness, a proposal to raise the pension age, the punitive Direct Provision system for asylum seekers and more – and spreading beyond the usual suspects, partly because of the complacency of traditional parties. The highly successful equal marriage and abortion referendums polished campaign skills and convinced many people that they can make change happen.

Squeezed lives

The public hasn’t just been pointing the finger of blame at Fine Gael, in government for the past nine years.

Many blame Fianna Fáil for getting the country into a position that made Ireland so vulnerable to the 2008 financial crisis, with the population suffering the consequences.

Equally, they slam Fine Gael for not doing enough to bring people out of economic hardship, while simultaneously letting essential public services decay. 

Ireland’s economic indicators look good, but daily reality too often tells a different story: while unemployment has been slashed, low pay in a high-cost economy is squeezing lives. One experienced shop manager told me she fears she’ll have to work until she’s 78 to pay off the mortgage she took out at the height of the economic boom.

A normally politically astute friend in Waterford said: ‘This result is not Red, it’s not Green. It’s not social, it’s not health, it’s not fiscal. It’s an expression of pure frustration. Constantly, sectors of Irish society are pressing for results and solutions to their problems, and not getting them.’

But he was sceptical about the chance of change: ‘Many election promises were made – how many promises will turn into policies and practice?’

Sinn Fein made the election’s biggest promises, which may have persuaded enough voters to give them the boost that broke the mould. But they smack of a hit list prepared for opposition, and their affordability in government has been questioned. Trying to implement them while keeping a diverse coalition happy would make for interesting times.

‘Giving Mary Lou a chance’

When people were asked in the exit poll which party they would least like to see in government 30% said they’d prefer not to see Sinn Fein. This is not to detract from their moment in the spotlight – just a  reminder of the reality.

Irish Times journalist Jennifer O’Connell spent the election campaign on the road, talking to voters and avoiding politicians. She found a sense that ‘voters were limbering up to give someone else a chance [leaving them] open to hearing a more decisive message about the future’. Even some lifelong Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour voters said they had decided to ‘give Mary Lou a chance’.

‘It was almost always “Mary Lou”, rather than Sinn Féin. She became the party brand’, O’Connell wrote.

Her party’s historic result was a personal success for Mary Lou McDonald, an astute, determined and seemingly personable politician who has rebranded Sinn Fein to an extent unimaginable under her predecessor Gerry Adams.

But, whatever some Welsh dreamers may think, Irish voters lent Sinn Fein their votes last week – they did not sign up to an enhanced push for unification with the north, even though opinion polls suggest a majority favours a border poll at some point.

If republicanism is back in vogue it’s the original kind – espousing liberty, equality, fraternity rather than the narrow dogma that motivated IRA ‘campaigns’ for many decades. And voters expect the next government to deliver in the form of genuine improvements across the spectrum of social problems.

What next?

Forming a government will be a tough challenge for any party since none is even halfway to having the number of seats needed for a majority in the 160-seat Dáil.

Yet by Monday Mary Lou McDonald was talking confidently about leading a coalition with the smaller parties and independents.

Agreeing some common policies with the Solidarity-People Before Profit alliance, and possibly with Labour and the Social Democrats, should be possible. The independents are a different matter: a mixed bag politically, each will demand a high payback that favours their constituencies.

For the Greens, who won a historic 12 seats, ‘the only red line is climate action’. But the Sinn Fein manifesto was weak on climate change and McDonald dealt poorly with the issue during the leaders’ debate, and the Greens will not ignore that. They know they have other suitors – ‘no party is untouchable’, Neasa Hourigan TD stressed.

The morning after

Though she may well end up as Tánaiste or even Taoiseach, Mary Lou McDonald may find that some of her own TDs prove harder to keep in line than potential coalition colleagues.

While the votes were still being counted, some of them showed their true feelings. On Monday a video of one singing ‘Come out ye Black and Tans’ in a Dublin counting centre drew caustic reminders that ‘you get what you vote for’, in this case an outburst of militarism.

On Tuesday in Waterford a newly elected Sinn Fein TD ended his victory rally speech with a cry of ‘Up the ‘RA!’ (‘RA = IRA) – sending shivers down the spines of anyone who cares about peace in northern Ireland.

Asked about this, Mary Lou McDonald retorted ‘I’m not his mammy’ – raising questions about how she would manage an effective change team in coalition if she won’t take responsibility for her own members. And offering no comfort to those concerned about the impact north of the border.

The ‘B’ words

Brexit was very low down the list of key issues for voters, probably because there has been cross-party agreement and solidarity so far and the public assumes this will continue.

But who will represent Ireland’s interests in the coming crucial months of trade negotiations? How well would an inexperienced new minister cope on detail, keep EU partners on side, or keep Boris Johnson at bay?

People in the north will be watching the election fallout and wondering about the implications for stable government and peace in their region.

RTE’s veteran NI reporter Tommy Gorman noted: ‘In the immediate future Stormont and its power-sharing administration remains the laboratory [for SF]. It is the place where two traditions must prove their capacity to co-exist and Sinn Féin and the DUP are at the sharp end of that equation.

Mary Lou McDonald needs to recognise this and its implications beyond her party’s self-interest – and for it. They got electoral traction in the south because of the republic’s own problems. Giving high priority to a push for a border poll could boomerang against them on both sides of the border.

Democracy and peace

In the wake of this election, there is a widely held and understandable view that it was time to seriously rock the boat – the Greens and some other small parties deserve credit for this as much as Sinn Fein.

But there is something else bothering many: can Sinn Fein be trusted to behave as a normal party in the democratic sense?

Andy Pollak, another veteran reporter on Northern Ireland and founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, has doubts about that. ‘Sinn Fein are not a normal democratic party. They have still not cast off the habits ingrained by decades of slavishly supporting a violent secret army, the Provisional IRA and its all-powerful ‘army council’.’

Until Sinn Fein can prove its full commitment to democracy, can give cast-iron proof that it has totally abandoned its antidemocratic militarist ethos, then Welsh democrats would be wise to bide their time before claiming a close relationship with them.

Lila Haines is an Irish freelance journalist and independent researcher, based in Cardiff.

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John Ellis
John Ellis
4 years ago

The headline’s fair enough: indeed, ‘Sinn Fein’s shock win has little to do with Irish unification’. Probably next to nothing, in fact.

But Sinn Fein as a political movement has everything to do with reunification; it’s at the core of their brand. And if they do end up securing a place in government, they’ll from the start be pressing their coalition partner(s) to seek to advance that agenda. Even now, their demand is for a border poll within five years.

j humphrys
j humphrys
4 years ago

………………….wish we had their problems………………

Huw Davies
Huw Davies
4 years ago

That quote : ‘This result is not Red, it’s not Green. It’s not social, it’s not health, it’s not fiscal. It’s an expression of pure frustration. Constantly, sectors of Irish society are pressing for results and solutions to their problems, and not getting them.’ Parallels with the UK Brexit referendum and the result that was created out of frustration in Wales and several of the “left behind” English regions. Electorates expect their politicians to deal with relevant issues instead of poncing about grandstanding. The precise nature of the “issues” may vary from country to country, from region to region, but… Read more »

John Ellis
John Ellis
4 years ago
Reply to  Huw Davies

I agree entirely with the drift of your post. If we had a Senedd election right now, my hunch is that the Brexit party and the hollowed-out minimal residue of UKIP would vanish entirely from the Bay and the Tories would emerge in a stronger place than they’ve ever been in the post-devolution era.

But Harold Wilson’s dictum that ‘a week is a long time in politics’ was spot on, and given that the Senedd elactions are fifteen months away, an awful lot can happen in that intervening period.

Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
4 years ago

While irish reunification may not have been the dominant issue in the irish election it’s highly unlikely the large numbers of people casting their vote for sinn fein wouldnt have known that irish reunification is a core sinn fein policy, indeed this aim was reasserted by sinn fein’s leader today. Furthermore Sinn Fein showed its ‘full commitment to democracy’ when it signed up to the GFA over two decades ago, an agreement which implicitly recognises irish reunification can only occur with the consent of people in the north of ireland. Must also be pointed out the andy pollak lila haines… Read more »

j humphrys
j humphrys
4 years ago
Reply to  Leigh Richards

Will do. So now we have, in SF, PC and SNP quite similar parties in many ways?

Gwylon Phillips
Gwylon Phillips
4 years ago

Agree with Huw, Sinn Fein has done a “Brexit.’

Johnny Gamble
Johnny Gamble
4 years ago

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael don’t really have anything exciting to offer the Irish electorate. If anything its a choice between The Tories and Blairite Labour. For the first time Sinn Féin have come of age in the ROI General Election. We all know that Sinn Féins primary aim is Unification yet in this election this was way down the list of their priorities. Instead focusing mainly on Social Issues. However one of the demands of Sinn Féin in any would be coalition will inevitably include a push for a referendum on Irish Unity. Here is the stumbling block, The… Read more »

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