This weekend, parliamentary elections were held in Ireland. In the final count, Sinn Féin had come in a very close second place. The final tallies:
Fianna Fáil : 38 seats
Sinn Féin : 37 seats
Fine Gael : 35 seats
The Green Party won 12, Labour and the Social Democrats each won 6, and Solidarity won 5.
The results mark a sea change in Irish politics, as Sinn Féin has moved firmly away from its position as a second-tier party, always watching as control shifted between the center-right of Fine Gael and the centrist policies of Fianna Fáil.
Sinn Féin is the nationalist hard left party of Ireland. Their newfound success is instructive in many ways.
The party’s left-wing stances can be traced to its origin as the political wing of the terrorist Irish Republican Army group. Ireland had been oppressed by the British since the days of Oliver Cromwell in the 1600s, and twentieth-century efforts by the British to effect distance and relief had resulted in a tiered system by which the Irish were set into classes based primarily on their religion. The Irish rebelled violently against the format, while the British insisted they could not in good conscience relinquish control of the country while the loyalist Irish would be at risk of retaliatory slaughter.
In order to rally people to their side, the IRA used left-wing populism. They spoke of the disparity between the wealthy and the poor and promised to remedy it by redistribution.
After peace was negotiated in the 1990s, in large part due to the efforts of Bill Clinton, Sinn Féin officially abandoned even casual ties to the IRA. Despite the official position, the history of terrorist violence haunted the party. Many ranking party officials had been known members of the IRA, and while the notion of fighting for independence was appreciated by many Irish, car bombs and other actions which often resulted in civilian casualties were not.
The current leadership of Sinn Féin, by focusing on youthful candidates, has managed to set aside the roots of the party in the minds of many voters, although many concerns remain in political circles about the influence of former terrorists in the core workings of the party machine.
Ireland has been seeing an economic boom, marked by occasional dips due to issues like banking scandals, since the peace accords of the 1990s. This is due in large part to the economic policy of both major parties leaning toward fiscal conservatism. They are now seeing the results of having too much success; rents and property values have risen dramatically over the last two decades, and Sinn Féin was able to ride an “affordable housing” message to success at the ballot box.
Polling agencies indicate that the only reason Sinn Féin didn’t win outright was that they didn’t field candidates in some locations. Their failure to capture another seat provides a little breathing room for the Irish, as Sinn Féin is unlikely to be able to form a governing coalition. Their success does, however, open the door for a UK problem.
Sinn Fein’s success in Ireland, matched with its existing strength in Northern Ireland, is likely to raise the issue of integration of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This, combined with the growth of a nationalist movement in Scotland, will undoubtedly complicate negotiations for Britain during Brexit and throw even more chaos into the works for US/EU and US/UK trade relations.