John Ryan – Sinn Féin is Poised to Recast Ireland’s Political Dynamic

In still another EU nation we are seeing the waning of power of the old neo-liberal, corrupt EU political elite.

Sinn Féin experienced a late surge in popularity to secure the largest share of the vote in the Irish general election on 8 February. John Ryan writes that the party’s success has redrawn Ireland’s political landscape, leaving the country’s two established parties of power, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, in a difficult position.

Professor John Ryan is a Fellow at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Network Research Fellow at CESifo, Munich, Germany

Cross-posted from LSE EUROPP

Under the mechanics of Ireland’s electoral system, 39 constituencies elect between three and five lawmakers each, through a single transferable vote. Sinn Féin’s election success materialised under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald, a Dubliner who replaced veteran Belfast leader Gerry Adams in 2018. Since the party only put forward 42 candidates to fill Ireland’s 160 parliamentary seats, and since its success has come at the expense of other left-wing parties, it may now be impossible to build a governing bloc.

Sinn Féin rode a wave of anger over homelessness, soaring rents, hospital waiting lists and fraying public services. McDonald offered left-wing solutions, such as an ambitious public housing building programme, that enthused voters, especially those under 50. Meanwhile, Varadkar’s attempt to frame the election around his Brexit diplomacy and the strong economy fell flat. Fianna Fáil was contaminated by its confidence-and-supply deal that had propped up Varadkar’s minority administration, leaving Sinn Féin to cast itself as the agent of real change.

Varadkar may have a reputation abroad as a modern and polished statesman, but his domestic image differs from this substantially. Unusually for an Irish politician, the prime minister is socially awkward, and has not emerged as the ruthless vote-winner his party hoped he would be when they chose him to replace Enda Kenny in 2017. Simon Coveney, the Foreign Affairs minister, is being sounded out by Fine Gael members about taking over from Varadkar. Coveney was runner up in the party’s 2017 leadership election.

This extraordinary election result comes at a time at which the Republic of Ireland is the fastest growing economy in the EU, whose right of centre Taoiseach (prime minster) is a competent, gay, mixed-race Irish-Indian. Sinn Féin at its core is the party that wants to call a border poll in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on Irish unity. At the same time, it embraces multiculturalism, and supported both gay marriage and abortion rights. Relations with the UK were, until Brexit, as close as they have ever been. But Brexit altered the mood. Irish people disliked the way Brexiters disregarded Irish concerns.

Brexit itself may in fact have become Sinn Féin’s perfect storm: Not only has it locked the two larger parties into an extended problematic marriage, but it has also left the prospect of a United Ireland looking far less remote. Northern Irish voters chose Remain in the 2016 referendum but are now outside the EU anyway. Faced with the choice between two unions — the UK or the EU — many north of the border may choose unity with the Republic of Ireland in the next five years. Irish unity is Sinn Féin’s raison d’etre; already sharing power in Belfast, the party promises to hold a unity referendum within five years if it gains control in Dublin.

The two established parties of power in Ireland find themselves in a difficult situation. Varadkar has ruled out a pact with Sinn Féin and has instead floated a deal with Fianna Fáil. During the campaign, the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, ruled out entering government with Sinn Féin but left the door open to a deal with Fine Gael. Some suspect its preferred outcome is a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael government – an unpopular continuation of the status quo that would consolidate Sinn Féin as leader-in-waiting of the subsequent government. If Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are unable to come to an understanding to form a government, then a new election would be called, in which Sinn Féin would almost certainly run more candidates and win more seats.

On 20 February, Seán Ó Fearghaíl of Fianna Fail was re-elected as speaker which means Fianna Fail have 37 seats, the same as Sinn Féin. Four party leaders failed to win enough support to be elected Prime Minister (Taoiseach) in the first sitting of the 33rd Dáil, with Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald winning the most votes. In the first vote, members of parliament voted against Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar being re-appointed as leader of the country and he offered his resignation to President Michael D Higgins. He will continue in the role in a caretaker capacity until a new Prime Minister is elected. The result was 36 votes in favour, 107 against, with 16 abstentions.

Members of parliament also voted against Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s bid to become Prime Minster, as 41 voted in favour, 97 against and 19 abstained, and then voted on Green Party leader Eamon Ryan’s attempt to become Taoiseach, but he only received the support of his party’s 12 TDs, with 115 votes against and 28 abstentions. Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald failed to win enough support, with 45 votes in favour, 84 in opposition and 29 abstentions. The Irish Parliament has adjourned until Thursday 5 March and the talks seeking to agree a programme for government are set to intensify, a process that could take weeks or even months, and end in another election.

Sinn Féin is now poised to recast Ireland’s political dynamic and install itself as a third large party in what has historically been a two-party system. Whether in government or opposition, 2020 will be the election that sees Sinn Féin fundamentally break the historical tight grip of the two traditional parties on Irish politics.

Mary Lou McDonald is a smart politician, careful not to box herself in to policy positions that she cannot get out of or cannot sell to the party faithful. So while she now talks about reunification and the need for a border poll – she also stresses the need for a process of preparation for constitutional change and for orderly transition, without attaching a time scale to it.

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