“The two-party system is now officially broken, I believe forever”, said a confident Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Sinn Féin, in her victory speech – clearly on a high after the previous day’s general election. She has reason to believe as such: to the shock of the political establishment Sinn Féin managed to lead first-preference votes by a hefty 50,000.
To spectators from abroad there certainly has been an undeniable break with the country’s political status quo, drawing comparisons to other surprise populist victories of recent years, of which Brexit and President Trump are the most obvious examples. When considering the historical factors in Ireland, Sinn Féin’s surge is no less significant.
Since its establishment a century ago, the Republic of Ireland has been dominated by two parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. These two traditional rival parties both have largely identical centre-right policies, making the Republic of Ireland the only country in Western Europe to have never had a leftist government.
A typically conservative country in which the influence of the Catholic Church is manifest, Ireland has regularly been behind other nations in terms of social reform – indeed its constitution banned divorce or any dissolution of marriage until an amendment was passed in 1995. Therefore, Sinn Féin’s electoral gains is a momentous marker of shifting sands in Ireland, preceded notably by the country’s overwhelming votes in favour of same-sex marriage and the liberalisation of abortion laws in 2015 and 2018.
The origins of this political landscape lie in Ireland’s past, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil emerging from separate sides of the Irish Civil War in the 1920’s, and a general reluctance of Irish voters to support Sinn Féin owing to their controversial ties to the IRA. The spectre of this murky past still looms over the party today despite a push for rebranding in recent years, which has been helped in large part by the resignation of the previous leader Gerry Adams.
However, their building of success in each election gives evidence of the increasing willingness of the Irish people to accept their paramilitary links as largely historical, with no real relevance to modern-day issues. Indeed for young people, many of whom were born after the end of the Troubles in 1998, more pertinent is Ireland’s catastrophic housing crisis of which Sinn Féin offers decisive solutions, providing an alternative to a frustratingly unfruitful two-party rule. Evidently, the party’s popularity among young people is giving the party a chance to reinvent itself into something of a new political voice, reinvigorated by a desperate need for change.
Most significant in the long-term, however, is the implications of Sinn Féin’s victory for eventual Irish reunification. The party is far and away the most pro-unification party in the Dáil Éireann, previously being considered a single-issue party on the matter. There has been no substantial rise in public support for Irish unity in recent years, on either side of the border, however the culmination of the factors mentioned has brought about a perhaps inadvertent emphasis on the issue once again.
Image: Sinn Féin via Flickr