The Sinn Féin surge, and what it might mean for Brexit and the border

Published: 12 February 2020

Following the 2020 Irish General Election, Sinn Féin is the most popular party in Ireland by first preference votes. Jonathan Evershed, University College Cork, discusses the election result and what this might mean for the stages of the Brexit process and the constitutional question in Ireland. 

Forget everything you know about Irish politics (this might not be asking much of even some of the UK’s most seasoned political commentators). The rules have, seemingly, been entirely rewritten by a seismic election which has rocked Ireland’s political system. Bucking its historic tendency to underperform on election day relative to its pre-election polling, Sinn Féin has emerged as the most popular party in Ireland by first preference votes, and second largest in terms of seats. The party has outperformed even its own wildest expectations. On the back of a difficult year electorally in 2019, it went into this election with a defensive rather than offensive electoral strategy, and with only 42 candidates in the field. In some constituencies, candidates were elected with twice the quota required to secure a seat in the Dáil, per the arithmetic of Ireland’s PR-STV electoral system, with no second Sinn Féin candidate to whom surpluses could be reallocated. This has, however, been to the benefit of other left-of-centre parties with whom it may now be Sinn Féin’s preference to seek to form a coalition (in Cork South-West for example, the allocation of some 3,000 Sinn Féin supporters’ second preferences to the Social Democrats’ Holly Cairns was enough to carry her over the finish line and into the constituency’s third and final seat).

Sinn Féin went into the 2020 general election with a manifesto proposing radical and expensive solutions to the crises in healthcare, social services and housing which for many Irish citizens have given lie to the outgoing government’s claims about economic recovery since 2011. Sky-high rents and a critical supply-side shortage in housing, in particular, have left swathes of (particularly, though by no means exclusively) younger voters feeling priced out of having a meaningful stake in Irish society, and these voters have been drawn in huge numbers to Sinn Féin’s promise to deliver the largest public housing programme in the history of the state.

Crucially, for these voters, Sinn Féin’s past is much less important than its promises for the future. The party’s rehabilitation and mainstreaming – which, despite the radical departure this election undoubtedly represents, actually reflects longer-running trends in Irish politics – has been aided by the restoration of power-sharing in Stormont. Attempts by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to cast Mary Lou McDonald as unfit to hold the office of Tánaiste sat awkwardly alongside both parties’ long-running insistence that Sinn Féin had both a mandate and a moral duty to get back into government North of the border. Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin’s continuing refusals to countenance coalition with Sinn Féin smacked of hypocrisy and of condescension towards what transpired to be almost a quarter of the electorate in the Republic of Ireland.

Despite continuing claims by some UK-based commentators to the contrary, this election was emphatically not about England or about Anglo-Irish relations. It cannot be stressed enough how low a priority Brexit was for Irish voters. The government was widely regarded as having handled this issue well, and as having secured an agreement which protects Irish economic interests, the Good Friday Agreement and the openness of the Irish border. The problem for the government was that it was regarded as having done this at the expense of dealing adequately with key domestic issues. And there was such limited political capital for Fine Gael in its handling of Brexit because no other party was proposing to handle it differently. This created the space Sinn Féin needed for an election on its terms – in many respects the party had precisely the kind of election the UK Labour Party wanted and failed to get in 2019.

As Maynooth University’s John O’Brennan has indicated, regardless as to who ends up in government, these election results are unlikely to substantially alter Ireland’s role in the forthcoming phase of EU-UK negotiations, notwithstanding Mary Lou McDonald’s calls for the EU to ‘take a stand’ on Irish (re)unification. And while, as John Tonge from the University of Liverpool has noted, ‘Downing Street will not exactly be welcoming this result’, the truth is that there is a long and productive history of engagement between British governments and Sinn Féin, not least as a result of Sinn Féin’s status as a party of government in Northern Ireland. Ireland’s strategic priorities going into the next round of Brexit talks remain largely unchanged. And given that their proposed programme for government relies on the smooth sailing of the Irish economy, the Sinn Féin leadership are unlikely to want to disturb the geo-political waters too much.

It should also be noted that while the Sinn Féin manifesto did affirm that the party’s ‘core political objective’ remains the achievement of Irish Unity, this was not necessarily the primary concern of those who turned out to give Sinn Féin a first preference vote. The party fought the election not, as UCC’s Mary C. Murphy has noted, on the issue of the border, but on ‘bread and butter concerns’. Nonetheless, it is hard to envisage how any new government involving Sinn Féin would not seek to deal with the constitutional question in some way. A border poll may still be some way off (and remains, ultimately, within the purview of the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland), but we might reasonably expect an acceleration of preparations – at a minimum, a white paper and an Oireachtas committee – for such an eventuality. This issue will be one of many over which parties now have to wrestle as what is likely to be a slow and tortuous process of government formation begins.

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