By Tom Castle
Sinn Féin recorded a stunning advance in the latest Irish general election, topping the poll with 24.5%. The two dominant parties since partition, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil could only muster 43.1% between them, their worst combined showing in the history of the state.
FF/FG are now in the extremely uncomfortable position where they will have to form some sort of bloc or alliance to keep out Sinn Féin, which will be their priority. But that would only reinforce the correct public perception that they are the tweedledee and tweedledum of the same centre-right politics, and only their fake differences over their historical positioning in the civil war separates them.
For Sinn Féin this was a great success. The party’s vote exceeded its total share in the last two general elections combined. It is the first time the party has topped the poll since 1918. It now has more votes across Ireland than any other party, at 700,000 votes. Its nearest rival is Fianna Fáil with fewer than 500,000 votes.
Even if FF and FG horse-trading to form some sort of government is successful, and they will need to rely on the rightist Greens or Labour Party to achieve that, the spectre of Sinn Féin as the alternative government will haunt them for their period in office.
Sinn Féin’s vote share rose by 10.7%, at the expense of almost every other party, with exception of the Greens who gained 4.4%. The biggest losers were the ruling Fine Gael who shed 4.7% of the vote. That aside, the losses were fairly evenly divided, with Fianna Fáil, Labour, the Social Democrats and the bloc of ‘Independents’ all losing more than 1% and up to 3.5% of the vote.
Voters reported that the multiple crises in housing, health and in schools were the driving factors behind their vote. Very strong economic growth has been reported since the deep recession of 2008 to 2010. But the reality is much more modest as the data is distorted by the tax-avoidance activities of multinational companies. The widespread mood seems to have been, ‘why is my standard of living so bad if we’re told repeatedly the economy is booming?’ Sinn Féin’s longstanding opposition to austerity left them best-placed to gain votes as a result.
But there were also decisive underlying changes causing the earthquake in Ireland. The social crises are long-standing, but as recently as November 2019 Sinn Féin was on 11% and Fine Gael was on 30%. The Fine Gael Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was getting a large benefit of the doubt because he was seen as standing up to Britain on the issue of Brexit. The outcome of the British election brings much closer a disastrous Brexit for Ireland, and with it even worse consequences on public services.
Sinn Féin is naturally the party most associated with standing up to Britain, and with fighting austerity. By contrast prior to the election, Varadkar’s promise of a memorial to the Royal Irish Constabulary and the black and tans killed brought widespread criticism. These are the counter-revolutionary gangs recruited by Britain to crush the Irish revolution in the 1920s. Sinn Féin’s victory was the perfect riposte and the traditional ‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’ Republican anthem virtually became the theme tune for the election, joyously celebrated at the various election counts and on innumerable Republican social media posts!
It is surely right to try, but it is not clear Sinn Féin will be able, to form even a minority administration as all likely partners are either too right wing and/or too untrustworthy. But even if it cannot succeed this time, the 2020 election is an historic advance for the cause of working people and the cause of uniting Ireland has received a tremendous boost.