A greater radicalised Ireland voting for a pro-unification party, yet feeling further from the UK than ever – Isaac Bettridge comments on the long-reaching effects of the Emerald Isle’s election.
The results of the Irish election on Saturday the 8th of Feb represent a significant alteration of the country’s political landscape, and yet another European election that sees outsiders and insurgents surging to the forefront- except this time, the rebels are coming from the left. Sinn Fein, the left-wing republican party, won the largest number of first-preference votes overall, but came just short of Fianna Fail, the centre-left party, in numbers of seats (having 37 to FF’s 38)- meanwhile, Finn Gael, the party of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, lost 12 seats, coming in third with 35. At the time of writing, no government has been formed, with both FF and FG ruling out entering into a coalition with Sinn Fein: so, everything is still up in the air, but with the combined vote share of the two major parties falling to a historic low, it’s clear that voters have expressed great discontent with the state of affairs in the Republic. But how did we get here, and what does any of this mean?
Sinn Fein’s rise comes at a time of increased turbulence in the Irish political system. Ireland took the 2008 financial crash hard – before, it had been riding the ‘Celtic Tiger’ to a record economic boom, but in the aftermath it became the first Eurozone state to enter recession, and the unemployment rate rose to up to 15%. Fianna Fail, then the governing party, was knocked out of power in the 2011 election and replaced by Finn Gael, who at present remain in charge. This disillusionment created a backlash against mainstream politics that Gael tried to use to garner support for austerity, much as our Conservative party did, but since then austerity too has failed to produce the results it promised, leaving voters open to radical new arguments. Socially, the country has seen much upheaval: this traditionally Catholic country has seen a rise in atheism and religious non-affiliation among the youth, for whom the Catholic-Protestant binaries that have defined the island and its political turmoil hold little value, and who are more progressive on issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and abortion.
disillusionment created a backlash against mainstream politics… later leaving voters open to radical new arguments.
One key question for the future is how this will impact the Brexit process, in which the issue of the Irish border has already been paramount. Though Brexit is predictably low on Irish voters’ list of their priorities (one exit poll said that just 1% of Irish voters were concerned about Brexit) the rise of an avowedly pro-unification party to the top of Irish politics definitely raises complications for the future relationship between the two Isles. A Sinn Fein dominated government would be even more unlikely than the current one to acquiesce to British demands, and may indeed use this opportunity to furnish support for unification by painting the government in Westminster as out of touch and unresponsive to the needs of people in Northern Ireland (which would be easy given that it’s clearly true). With SF throwing their weight in with the EU and the Northern Irish population feeling increasingly left astray (remember that they voted overwhelmingly against Brexit), a referendum on unification feels like only a matter of time.
unlike Labour, it has a popular leader- Mary Lou McDonald, who has successfully positioned her party as a champion of the nation’s disaffected youth
Furthermore, these results are interesting when compared to wider political trends in Europe and the world at large. Overall, the trend in much of Europe, especially the populist rend, is towards the right, with our own increasingly xenophobic Conservatives and various right-wing parties (Poland’s Law and Justice Party, France’s National Front) gaining significant ground and capturing governments. In Ireland however, the two parties doing best are the two parties of the left, and this perhaps points to the greater effectiveness Sinn Fein has had at challenging the mainstream than parties of the left in the rest of the West have. For one thing, unlike Labour, it has a popular leader- Mary Lou McDonald, the first to lead the party since Gerry Adams retired, has successfully positioned her party as a champion of the nation’s disaffected youth, angry at dwindling economic prospects and an escalating housing crisis whilst also taking the lead on issues such as same-sex marriage, with Sinn Fein being the first major party to vocally support equal marriage leading up to the 2015 referendum. One should not read this all as a sign that Sinn Fein will certainly form the next government, but nevertheless, this election represents a major turning point in the political history of the Emerald Isle.