On February 10, 2018, after more than 34 years at the helm, Irish politician Gerry Adams resigned as leader of Sinn Féin, the largest pro-Irish party in the reunification of the Republic of Ireland and the region of Northern Ireland controlled by the United Kingdom. In her place was Mary Lou McDonald, who set out her vision for the party in her first speech, committing to “innovative and modern ways to advance our politics.”
Three years later, Sinn Féin made that vision a reality, shattering the Irish two-party system and four points ahead of government parties in recent polls.
As tempting as it may be to attribute the party’s success to the rise of populism that has dominated Europe in recent years, Sinn Féin is more than a dissenting populist front. Instead, the party has reinvented itself in the first alternative vision of an Irish future that the country has seen since the War of Independence. Sinn Féin has shattered Irish politics, drastically and permanently, and there is no turning back for the Emerald Isle.
Sinn Féin was originally founded in 1905 with a platform of Irish republicanism, a progressive nationalist ideology that was decidedly pro-Irish and anti-British. At the time, all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, but in the ensuing Irish War of Independence, Sinn Féin lawmakers who refused to sit in the British Parliament created their own rebellious Irish government to support revolutionaries.
Once the war was over and both sides agreed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which left twenty-six counties governed under the name of the Republic of Ireland and left six predominantly Protestant and pro-British northern counties in the Kingdom United, the party was divided on support for the new partition which divided the island in two. The pro-Treaty faction would split up to form the Cumann na nGaedheal party (which later became the Fine Gael), while the anti-Treaty faction would form the Fianna Fáil. Sinn Féin itself continued to exist, but in severely diminished capacity, consistently failing to win any seats in the National Legislative Assembly.
Since the split, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have alternated power for nearly a century, but the real ideological divide between the two parties is thin. As the two parties expanded their tent to win the most votes during the inevitable failure of the other’s government, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil gradually adopted a center-right political stance, with loyalties deeply entrenched governing party support more than actual politics.
At the start of the Troubles, a period of decades of sectarian and ethno-nationalist violence in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin split into several groups, most of which claimed the title and legacy of the former Revolutionary Party. . However, it was the faction led by Gerry Adams, which distinguished between idealism and pragmatism, that would ultimately find success. The party served its first member of the Southern Irish legislature in 1997, and quickly became the largest pro-reunification party in Northern Ireland, leading the call to reunite with the Republic of Ireland in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In 2016, after the two main parties led a lackluster post-recession government, combined support for the two parties reached an all-time high, with less than half of all voters ranking one of the two parties as their top preference. . The Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were forced to form a loose alliance to retain power, but their trust and supply deal only perpetuated the idea that the two sides were functionally identical. When the elections were called in early 2020, Sinn Féin saw its chance to strike.
On February 8, 2020, Republicans won more first preference votes than any other party and tied Fianna Fáil for most seats. But Sinn Féin’s victory was deeper than that; every SF reelection candidate was reelected, and the party sat 37 of the 42 candidates alone for an astonishing 88% victory rate. 27 Sinn Féin candidates won their seats in the first count, a rarity in a choice-by-order system, and 25 constituencies saw a Sinn Féin candidate win the most first preference votes.
Such a stunning victory, seemingly out of nowhere, begs the question: how did they do it?
At a time when ‘Trumpism’ has become a political buzzword in Ireland and right-wing nationalism is on the rise in countries like France and Italy, some commentators have argued that Sinn Féin belongs to the same cadre. of protest blocks to vitriol, but this equivalence is misleading. Sinn Féin is not a servant of the people or of the five-star movement; their success persists, and dismissing it as just an anti-establishment “protest vote” ignores the real calls for reform from the growing Irish Republican-led left movement.
The Sinn Féin has been successful and will maintain its longevity as they were able to tap not only on the anger of the public, but also on the optimism of the public. In McDonald’s first election as party chairman, huge losses in local councils and in the European Parliament put the future of the party in question.
However, it took less than a year for the party to learn from its mistakes. Realizing that they could not run a successful campaign solely on the dissatisfaction of the two main parties, Sinn Féin adopted a new campaign strategy for next year’s elections to the national legislature, one that put people and politics in the foreground.
Irish citizens, especially millennials, are strangled by a cutthroat housing market. Fianna Fáil proposes to build 42,000 new public housing units; The Fine Gael is proposing 50,000. The Sinn Féin is asking for 100,000, a three-year rent freeze and housing be declared a constitutional right. Ireland’s low corporate tax rates (or, to borrow a word, “competitive”) lead many companies to use the country as a tax haven. The three parties undertake to maintain the 12.5% tax. Sinn Féin presents aggressive proposals to close tax loopholes and demands greater tax transparency, especially vis-à-vis multinationals. On top of that, the party’s 2020 platform calls for further democratization of Irish political institutions, immediate recognition of the State of Palestine and, of course, a referendum on Irish reunification.
Republicans combined these calls with a comprehensive communications platform, amplifying the party’s digital presence and making the party the most popular on social media. As industry experts began to lead the policy discussions, Pearse Doherty and Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Féin’s finance and housing experts respectively, became household names. The party did not present itself as a protest vote against the languid duopoly, but as a vibrant new future for the struggling island.
The strategy worked. Young voters have flocked to the party overwhelmingly; among 18-24 year olds, Sinn Féin held a comfortable sixteen point lead in the exit polls. When the two “big” parties refused to form a government with McDonald’s, which had received a clear mandate, public opinion only drifted further in favor of the party. The two-party system was breaking down.
Even recently, following an increase in the popularity of the current Irish head of government, Taoiseach Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil, following the rollout of the vaccine in Ireland, Sinn Féin still holds a comfortable lead in the polls. The party did more than win an election. They consolidated their position as the first real political alternative that the country has known for several decades.
Since independence, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have traded power on the backs of their respective failures. A scandal would break out, the opposition would rally its base and power would change hands. The real differences between the parties were less about politics than about branding. When Sinn Féin showed up in 2020, they upset the balance of the system; the introduction of radically new political proposals into the mainstream politics energized a long disillusioned section of the population and led to victory.
They have the infrastructure in place. And if Sinn Féin can keep and field more candidates in the next general election, Mary Lou McDonald will be the next Taoiseach. A government of Sinn Féin can no longer be seen as a fantasy of marginal idealists, but as a legitimate political possibility for the very near future.
And as McDonald’s leads his party to resounding successes in the Republic of Ireland, his deputy, Michelle O’Neill, is ready to do the same with the party’s section in Northern Ireland. There, Sinn Féin’s main opposition, the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, imploded under stress over the implications of Brexit for the fragile region, with Sinn Féin getting nine points ahead of the Unionist Party. For the first time since the unrest, the reunification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland into a single Irish republic is the subject of serious discussion.
As economic crises spiral out of control and Brexit cast doubt on the precarious post-Troubles peace, Republicans have found their political niche and are taking advantage of it. Across the island, Sinn Féin struggles with decades-old traditions and systems and finds little hindsight. The Irish two-party system is gone forever and Sinn Féin is here to stay.
Image Credit: Sinn Féin by Flickr is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0