Polls in the Republic of Ireland and one pollster in Northern Ireland has Sinn Fein as the largest party. How has it arrived at this, and can they deliver such a result?
First, having the largest vote share is not new for Sinn Fein in the Republic as they gained the highest party vote in the 2020 Irish election, almost one in four. The more significant development has been their ability to maintain that level and grow it to almost one in three. This is driven by failings of the Irish government and longer-term trends.
For a century it has been the Irish Civil War parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, that have vied to lead Ireland with Fianna Fail the more successful. Following electoral reform, a single party of government became much more difficult, so the Irish electoral model was a “two and a half” party system (Fianna Fail or Fine Gael with a smaller third party, usually a party of the left). The maxim was there was always space on the left of Irish politics, but it was limited space.
The banking collapse electorally hobbled Fianna Fail. In their moment of deepest despair, it turned to the present Taoiseach, Micheál Martin. His role was to be the transitional leader, take the kicking, reconsolidate, start the journey back then hand over to a new untainted leader. The problem is he never left, trapping Fianna Fail in a form of stasis as demonstrated by the 2020 election campaign. Fine Gael had to make many of the unpopular decisions to tidy up the mess and is identified too much with the “haves” reinforced by the arrogance that runs through Varadkar and Coveney.
The 2020 Irish election result should have been the mother of all wake up calls amongst the political classes. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael treated it as a temporary aberration and agreed on a “business as usual” Programme for Government. Housing, a top disaffected voter concern, saw no new significant action.
Ironically, to counter Sinn Fein’s rise the Irish establishment have questioned Sinn Fein’s suitability for government, based on their past and present relationship with the PIRA. This hasn’t landed. Historically, the whiff of gunpowder, stain of blood and dubious funding is not unique to Sinn Fein, though it is hardly “historic” in Sinn Fein’s case. The young and the “squeezed middle” of the Pale don’t seem to care. Crucially, every major Irish party has been a cheerleader for Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland government and largely backed up their demands in every crisis. They are trapped or made hypocrites by their own sanitisation of Sinn Fein.
Some are imagining a rainbow coalition to keep Sinn Fein out
There are deeper trends, however. Ireland’s early decades were beset by the problem of under-development. With the Celtic Tiger, it ran headlong into problems of over-development. Money initially papered over the cracks but then it ran out. These problems have been the core drivers behind Sinn Fein’s success, not their position on Northern Ireland. Dublin academic Kevin Cunningham recently highlighted the decline in religiosity and home ownership as the root of long-term decline of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael with more people now willing to define themselves as left-wing. The result is the space on the left of Irish politics is now much larger, and Sinn Fein is inhabiting it.
For all the hype, 30 per cent doesn’t guarantee a place in the Dublin government. Some are imagining a rainbow coalition to keep Sinn Fein out. Yet, the culture of power and addiction to the ministerial car runs deep. Will a party blink? An alternative is a Sinn Fein minority government in expectation that its failure would wipe away gains. This is a reasonable expectation, partly based on the difficulties of such governments and partly based on their under-performance in the Northern Ireland Executive. However, the greatest concern is what impact a Sinn Fein government and its policies would have on the global capital flows Ireland relies on. The Irish government’s own analysis has consistently highlighted the precariousness of its economic foundations; would a Sinn Fein government produce a deep shock to those foundations?
It would represent a challenge for the European Union. When the Freedom Party joined the Austrian government, the EU enacted political sanctions and is still engaged in disputes with Hungary and Poland. If the EU is uncomfortable with such parties in government, what about a party that endorsed death for the communities and peoples it demonised and still glorifies those actions to this day? In the process of Brexit, the Irish Government made sure the European Commission and Union supped their fill of the peace process gruel, so will likely do nothing, though the temptation to use the issue to press for long wanted moves on Irish Corporation Tax rates will be tempting.
Northern Ireland has not seen a rise in Sinn Fein support. The headline of gaining North Belfast in the 2019 General Election hid the fact they experienced the largest drop of all the NI parties. What limited polling is done in NI shows no sign of electoral growth. Sinn Fein has gained the top spot by the faltering position of the DUP. The claim that DUP support has dropped dramatically is worth treating with sizeable scepticism, but it certainly was enough to have gone from first to second.
Since Theresa May’s first form of sea border to the sea border’s final form in the Withdrawal Agreement, the DUP opposed them all, but the DUP has borne the political price for its creation. The demoralisation of the Withdrawal Agreement led to a variety of attitudes within Unionism. Some wanted to continue full opposition. Some pinned hopes on Michael Gove’s Command paper as at least minimisation of it, but Gove’s EU negotiations didn’t deliver. Instead, he agreed to build the sea border to EU specifications. Some were despondent, sullenly trying to learn to live with it. However, the Protocol is such an impractical imposition, never mind a constitutional and democratic assault, that living with it wouldn’t work, practically or politically. When the reckoning came in January, it didn’t survive a week.
The idea of voting to eliminate Northern Ireland doesn’t sell to a majority here
The message seems to have partially got through to London. When things started to go wrong Arlene Foster maximised a personal relationship with Boris Johnson to get him to recognise the problem. Lord Frost replaced Gove as lead. Frost takes the promise at the time of the Withdrawal Agreement to “fix it later” much more seriously than Gove ever did, but after nearly 21 months of different promises of fixes soon, patience is at an end. The new DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, as outlined back in June, has righted the ship and set a robust protocol policy. He has established an October timeframe for action, or the DUP will have to walk from the Assembly.
In terms of the future elections, Sinn Fein have one very large card to play. The Electoral Commission approved a multi-million pound donation from an obscure English pensioner with a history of mental illness. They may choose to hold some of those resources back for a larger goal, the demand for a referendum.
Sinn Fein would use any cross-border success to promote their demand for a referendum to abolish Northern Ireland and remove it from the United Kingdom. The fact that they would be no nearer to satisfying the actual test for a referendum will be ignored. Parts of agreements only matter when nationalism says so, or they invoke the ever-evolving but remarkably consistent pro-nationalist “spirit” of agreements.
There is the contradiction that while Sinn Fein success would increase their demands for a poll, their chances of winning get worse. A 2020 NI survey showed that in potential swing groups, Sinn Fein’s numbers are the worst of all parties. The idea of voting to eliminate Northern Ireland doesn’t sell to a majority here. The “bonus” of a Sinn Fein government would have even less buying. The broader problem for London is how the demands for referendums in Scotland and Northern Ireland will amplify one another and where granting one would have a potential domino effect.
In Northern Ireland, this creates incentive to resolve the imbalances that the Protocol created and remove the instability it is injecting into Northern Ireland politics. As for the Republic of Ireland, the Fianna Fail/Fine Gael government has frittered away eighteen months since the election and with leadership heaves likely in Fianna Fail and possible in Fine Gael as well, they’ve no guarantee of eighteen months more. They simply need a much better offer to the disaffected, to deliver on it and fast.
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