Sinn Féin Could Capitalise On A Confident Irish Left

It's election time in Ireland, and polling has shown a surge in support for Sinn Féin. This election could mark the end of the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael duopoly that has dominated Irish politics for nearly a century

With the General Election now less than a week away, the Republic of Ireland seems to be on the verge of a historic political realignment. The latest opinion polls show Sinn Féin either tied for the lead or at least in second place, pushing the ruling Fine Gael party into third. This interruption of the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael duopoly that has existed since the Civil War is not entirely unprecedented in polling - Sinn Féin have been polling well at a number of periods in the past few years - but if it manifests itself in the actual election results, it would represent a sea-change in Irish politics. It would herald the Republic’s graduation into a more typical democratic state, where there is a genuine ideological divide between the major contending parties. However, there are reasons to be cautious before heralding Sinn Féin’s arrival.

With British pundits fixated on the Brexit implications of the Irish vote, it’s important to emphasise that Brexit is not a significant motivating factor in the Irish vote, no matter how much an ill-advised Andrew Neil might wish to tweet it into reality. In fact, when given a choice of three issues, only 8% of Irish respondents even picked Brexit as a factor at all. Much more prosaic issues such as housing, health and education are the top three issues for voters. It is Fine Gael’s attempt to turn the campaign into a referendum on their management of the Brexit process that is one of the major reasons their campaign has failed to gain much traction among the electorate. Much like the disastrous Theresa May election campaign in ‘17, Leo Varadkar’s attempt to present himself as a sure hand on the tiller who will get a good Brexit deal has simply failed to land, with young people in particular furious about a rental crisis that his government has had nine years to get a handle on. The reality is that there is very little disagreement among the three main parties about Brexit; there is a clear consensus that it will be a disaster for Ireland and all are interested in protecting Irish interests in the occupied North, as well as fishing rights and exports.

In terms of it heralding a newfound ‘Anglophobia’, which is a particular bête noire of the Telegraph or Irish right-wing columnists, it could, instead, be considered the assertion of a newfound positive Irish identity, one that sees itself less inextricably linked to the British state. Among under 55s, Sinn Féin leads in nearly every demographic, with Fine Gael’s attempt to hold an official commemoration for the occupying Royal Irish Constabulary, including members of the infamous death squads the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, particularly damaging its prospects in rural Ireland and among working class Dubliners. It should be remembered that younger Irish people grew up under the Celtic Tiger, and rather than demoralised veterans of constant left-wing losses throughout the 80s, most peoples’ interactions with activism involved the incredibly successful campaigns to legalise same-sex marriage and abortion. A confident, younger generation of Irish activists do not see the old ways as immutable, and also do not see our history with England so fatalistically. Fine Gael and their sympathisers paint events such as the Queen’s visit and the attempted commemoration of the RIC as symbols of Irish ‘maturity’. But it could be argued that in place of forelock tugging, the real sign of Irish maturity is not to care at all. A more global reorientation is already underway - Irish youth emigration is now to Vancouver, Adelaide or Berlin, instead of rainy nights in Soho.

It is within this context that, for once, the Irish election seems to be following international trends. Corbyn was always more popular in Ireland than he was in the UK, and Sinn Féin have borrowed heavily from his popular manifesto, with a pinch of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez style rhetoric, whilst highly suggesting ‘the time is now’. Even Fine Gael are in on the act, suggesting their tax cuts are ‘for the many, not the few’.

Sinn Féin are also blessed to have a few genuinely excellent politicians, with Mary Lou McDonald recovering from low personal approval ratings and a weak start to her leadership term with some stand-out debate performances, and she is widely considered to be having the best campaign out of any of the potential Taoiseach candidates. Even the fact she can be mentioned as a potential Taoiseach is something that would have been unthinkable before the election was called. But Sinn Féin’s real assets are Eoin Ó Broin and Pearse Doherty. Ó Broin is a socialist intellectual, whose book on housing is a comprehensive diagnosis of Ireland’s current market failures. He has been a strong performer for a number of years now and has added a considerable intellectual heft to Sinn Féin’s offering, making right-wing media’s assertions that Sinn Féin are ‘fantasists’ or ‘unserious’ much less credible. Similarly Pearse Doherty has great control of the Finance brief and his work uncovering insurance industry cartel fraud was both incredibly popular and incredibly incisive.

However, due to Sinn Féin’s vote being historically hard to get out on the day, polls can’t always be trusted. Sinn Féin are also, in this election, highly dependent on the youth vote which, due to Fine Gael shenanigans with regards to the election’s timing (the newest official register of electors doesn’t come into effect until February 14), could potentially see thousands of students disenfranchised if they did not apply to be added to the supplementary register in time. Holding the election on a Saturday is also almost unprecedented, and may mean people who work weekend jobs in their hometowns, away from their university, may not be able to vote. Add to this the fact that under the Republic’s PR-STV system, Sinn Féin’s history makes them highly ‘transfer-averse’, and even with a large number of first preferences it still might not translate into actual Dáil seats. There are a large number of people who will simply never give Sinn Féin a preference. In addition, Sinn Féin are only running 42 candidates, putting an upper-limit on how well they can do. Their surge in support is so unprecedented that even Sinn Féin’s election strategists seem to have failed to consider it possible. On the other side of this - Fine Gael’s collapse in vote could see them heavily penalised in seats where they are running multiple candidates. Voter management pacts, telling areas that are safely Fine Gael to instead vote for the less well-known candidate, could see them miss out altogether if the dwindling FG numbers cause too big a split. Transfers are the key to a successful election in the Republic and with the polls in flux it could be anyone’s game.

With increasing calls for a ‘progressive alliance’ between Sinn Féin, Trotskyist alliance Solidarity-People Before Profit, Social Democrats, Labour and the Green Party, there could be space for the first Irish government without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. The polling makes it just about possible. But even barring an almost miraculously good day for all those groups, it will almost definitely mark the first time the two Civil War parties poll below 50% and could force them to move from a confidence-and-supply arrangement where Fianna Fáil support a minority Fine Gael government into a fully fledged coalition between the two right wing parties. It also almost certainly spells the end of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Simon Harris and Eoghan Murphy; his health and housing ministers. Even a best case scenario suggests they’ll have their worst election result since 1948. It’s hard to see them surviving.

Whilst a decisive Sinn Féin victory is still hard to imagine, this has been an election campaign fought between distinct ideologies on how to deal with the many crises Ireland has stored up since the recession and austerity. And in Ireland’s case, that itself is progress.