Jerry Fitzpatrick on the historic victory for Sinn Fein and what it means for Irish unity
On a Saturday a hundred years ago the Irish went to polls and elected Sinn Féin MPs with a massive majority, thus heralding the end of British rule in Ireland. On a Saturday in February 2020 the Irish electorate propelled Sinn Féin into winning the top spot in terms of the popular vote and securing equal top ranking of TDs elected.
For the last hundred years the two centre-right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have dominated Government as alternating Tweedledee and Tweedledum administrations. Conservative social and economic policies prevailed with the Catholic Church exercising a dominant influence.
Ireland has changed utterly. In a 2015 Referendum 62% voted to legalise same-sex marriage and in a 2018 Referendum 66% voted to legalise abortion. The combined votes for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been falling, from a high of 81% in 1977, down to 69% in 2007, but now down dramatically to 44% of the electorate in 2020. Twenty years ago Sinn Féin polled 2% with one TD elected. In 2020 the Sinn Féin vote surged to 25% with 37 TDs elected.
The 2020 result is seismic and transformative for the Left and Irish Republicanism. No one foresaw the scale of this political tsunami. Sinn Féin did not stand enough candidates to maximise seat gains. One woman candidate went on a family holiday and another woman candidate put up 20 posters. Both these Sinn Féin candidates ended up as poll toppers. Under the Irish PR system the redistributed Sinn Féin vote surpluses secured the election of candidates from other left wing parties and Green candidates.
Time for change
The time for change and hope message from Sinn Féin and Left candidates resonated with the electorate. The critical issues of housing, homelessness, health services and working class families’ disenchantment with living standards that were prioritised by Sinn Féin surged to the top of the agenda. The miserable records of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were exposed. The Sinn Féin manifesto for socialist change echoed the British Labour Party’s 2019 manifesto with its redistributive economic and social commitments. Brexit did not feature as either a vote-gainer or a vote-loser. The National Party, an explicitly anti-immigration party akin to UKIP, polled at 0.2% of first preference votes.
The political youthquake was also apparent with a record of young voters flocking to Sinn Féin. The IRA’s armed struggle campaign is increasingly being regarded as part of Irish history. The ceasefires of 1994 are now over 25 years ago. To many young voters the ‘Troubles’ are not that different from the war of independence which featured the forerunners of today’s Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. And, following Gerry Adam’s retirement, Mary Lou McDonald has presented a new appealing image and leadership for Sinn Féin. It was striking that Sinn Féin voters led all age groups except those over 65 years of age.
Despite the euphoria of this transformative election, a word of caution is required. The Left parties do not have a parliamentary majority. Eighty TDs are required to form a majority Government with a non-voting Speaker. The Left parties including the Greens plus eight sympathetic Independents equals 74 TDs. The combined total of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael equals 72 TDs. The remaining 13 Independents are wary of supporting either bloc. Fianna Fáil has ruled out any coalition arrangement with Sinn Féin. After weeks of wrangling the outcome is likely to be a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition supported by Independents or the Greens. Whilst this frustrates the will of the electorate with its appetite for change, it will also be unstable and a new election will happen within a couple of years. Clearly the danger of Sinn Féin or Left parties acting to prop up the conservative parties should be avoided.
Prospects for Irish unity
The combination of Brexit and this election result have boosted and advanced the prospects for achieving a united Ireland. There is an appetite both north and south for progressing towards unity, particularly with regard to the negative economic impacts of Brexit at the end of 2020. The Westminster Government will continue to refuse a border poll. However, learning from the Brexit debacle, a Forum will be created to devise a new constitution for an agreed united Ireland and all the necessary transitional steps that would be required. External events will determine the timeline. The next UK election is likely in 2024. Eventually the Scots will be enabled to hold IndyRef2 with a real possibility of achieving Scottish independence. An Irish border poll will follow with an agreed united Ireland emerging and thus ending the British-imposed partition of Ireland.
The seismic electoral shift towards Sinn Féin and the Left is now unstoppable. The incoming unstable conservative coalition will collapse within two years. And then a broad left socialist Government beckons delivering transformative economic and social changes. This Government will be led by Mary Lou, the first ever woman Taoiseach. An agreed united Ireland is achievable within the next ten years. The times they are a-changing.