Political turmoil in Ireland and the continued rise of Sinn Féin

By Tom O’Donnell

Sinn Féin is hosting a conference in London on October 19 on the theme of Irish unity. It is a tremendous opportunity to hear and learn from the party leadership as it engages with a wide array of forces in the continued struggle against austerity, in defence of the Good Friday Agreement and for a united Ireland.

The conference has been called against a backdrop of continued economic crisis both sides of the border which in turn is creating a degree of political turmoil in both jurisdictions. Within that tumult a consistent theme has been the rise of Sinn Féin.

The current leadership has been forged in the struggle against British imperialism stretching back to the late 1960s. In elections in the North immediately prior to the Good Friday Agreement Sinn won 16 per cent of the vote. In the 2010 Westminster elections it was the largest party in the North with 25.5 per cent of the vote.

Its opposition to austerity policies in the South have led to a comparable rise, from 7 per cent in the 2007 general election to 23 per cent in recent opinion polls, its highest rating since the founding of the state.

The Good Friday Agreement is being persistently undermined by both the Tory-led government in Westminster and the main unionist party the DUP. The British government has reneged on a series of agreements, many of them enshrined by international treaty. This has encouraged unionism to retreat from engagement with the elected representatives of many other parties, including nationalists and Republicans. Instead, they have increasingly been caught up in futile distractions about flags and parades which are driven by a minority of hardened sectarians.

The principal contradiction for unionism is that its base of popular support is suffering from the economic crisis and the austerity budgets handed down from Westminster. Yet to oppose this would require allying with Sinn Féin.

In the South the crisis of government is reflected in the decline of the historically dominant parties in the state. In 2011 they received a combined vote 53 per cent of the vote, down from the mid-80 per cents in previous elections. Their combined total in recent polling is just 48 per cent. Fianna Fáil polled just 17 per cent having formerly been the major party of government.

The Irish Labour Party is also in decline, plummeting from 19 per cent in 2011 to just 6 per cent currently as its participation in a government implementing austerity policies is crushing its support. The total vote of the left is virtually unchanged over the same period but within that Sinn Féin has become the hegemonic force, outpolling Labour now four to one.

The general dissatisfaction with the economic crisis is such that a reasonable reform such as the abolition of the unelected Seanad upper chamber was voted down in a popular referendum largely because it was supported by the governing parties (as well as Sinn Féin). The Dublin government is about to launch its sixth consecutive austerity Budget. But the political crisis is such that the Financial Times reports the planned cuts have been reduced from €3.1bn to €2.5bn in order to prop up Labour, even though the next general election is not due until 2016.

The London Irish Unity conference on October 19 will not be addressed solely by Sinn Féin leaders. Elected representatives from Unionism and from the Tory and Labour parties in Britain have also accepted invitations to speak, as well former Irish Labour Party representatives. There will also be leaders from the women’s movement, from students and the President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

In opposing austerity and in pursuing a united Ireland Sinn Féin strategy is to engage with all political and social forces and the conference is an opportunity to learn from that process at close hand.

Register here for the London Irish Unity Conference.