In a major shake-up of Ireland’s two-party system, Sinn Féin has swept the polls in the general election. It won 24.5 per cent of first preference votes, puncturing the decades-long right-wing duopoly of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
The two parties, which took 69 per cent of the vote in 2007 before the economic crisis, were reduced to just 44 per cent between them. In the 2011 election Fianna Fáil, historically the strongest party, was decimated after implementing austerity. Since 2016 Fine Gael has needed the support of the other major party, Fianna Fáil, to govern.
The result represents an electoral shift to the left amidst a housing crisis and an unequal recovery from the economic crisis. Sinn Féin campaigned around a manifesto of social democratic policies including progressive taxation, rent freezes and universal healthcare. This political shift is also an outgrowth of a “youthquake” in the wake of the marriage equality and abortion rights referendums, with 31.8 per cent of voters aged 18-24 giving their first preference to Sinn Fein. Socialists, grouped in the Solidarity-People Before Profit alliance, retained five of their six seats.
Exit polls found Brexit to be a negligible concern for voters, despite claims that Ireland’s relationship to Britain was a major issue. Notably, Ireland has also bucked the European-wide rise of right-wing nationalism. Attempts by an emerging far right to contest the election were stillborn.
Sinn Féin is a republican party that, unlike the two major parties, aspires to govern on an all-Ireland basis. While the party’s electoral appeal in the South is a left social democratic one, it has governed as a pro-business party in Northern Ireland for 20 years as part of a power-sharing arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party.
As Solidarity goes to press, the shape of the next Irish government remains in flux. Sinn Féin did not field enough candidates for its vote to translate into seat numbers and only won 37 seats in the Irish parliament, the Dáil, as against Fianna Fáil’s 38 seats. Having now ruled out a left coalition government with the Greens, Social Democrats and Solidarity-People Before Profit on the basis of parliamentary arithmetic, Sinn Féin is seeking talks with Fianna Fáil.
But a coalition with Fianna Fáil would rapidly diminish any hopes for progressive change among Sinn Féin’s voters. The electoral collapse of the Irish Labour Party following its participation in the Fine Gael austerity government of 2011-2016 is a cautionary reminder.
Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have, in any case, refused to talk to Sinn Féin. The most likely scenarios at this point are a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition government, a weak Sinn Féin-led government, or a second election that would increase Sinn Féin’s vote. Whatever happens the stage is set for a historic realignment of Irish politics.
By James Yan