A vote for change in Ireland

The shock success of Sinn Féin is a serious blow to the Irish establishment.

Kevin Rooney


The last time a General Election in Ireland was held on a Saturday was in 1918. It gave a landslide to Sinn Féin, leading to the War of Independence and the establishment of the Irish Free State. This Saturday’s election, while not quite as historic, has certainly sent shockwaves through Ireland, and Sinn Féin again played a leading role.

The election’s significance lies in the apparent end of the two-party system – the dominance of the ‘civil war’ parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael since the inception of the state. On Saturday, these two traditional centre-right parties scraped 43 per cent of the vote between them.

The story of the election was the dramatic rise of Sinn Féin, which came top with 24.5 per cent of the vote. Not even Sinn Féin anticipated the surge in support, such that the party didn’t even field enough candidates to take advantage of the increased vote in each constituency. This initial lack of confidence was perhaps understandable: the party suffered heavy losses in the recent local-council and European elections.

But this weekend all that changed, with Sinn Féin winning seats in areas that it has never won before, including Galway and Tipperary. In places like Westmeath and Wexford, where Sinn Féin members couldn’t even hold on to their council seats just a few months ago, candidates achieved stunning victories, some getting almost 10 times their previous vote.

That the Sinn Féin surge was a rejection of the tired old politics of the established parties became clear in areas where Sinn Féin candidates beat the main party leaders into second place. In Cork, little-known candidate Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire topped the poll ahead of Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin, while in Dublin Paul Donnelly knocked Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar into second place.

So what explains the huge and sudden surge in support for Sinn Féin? The most obvious trend is the one seen in multiple elections around the world, of a resounding rejection of establishment politics and a vote for change. While Sinn Féin is roundly opposed to Brexit and Trump, its surge in support may well come from the same desire from voters to give the establishment a bloody nose and shake things up.

What has yet to be seen is how resilient the Sinn Féin vote will turn out to be. Was the party just in the right place at the right time, to be the vehicle for this protest vote, or does its newfound support run deeper than that?

The circumstances in which the election was called were not necessarily helpful to Sinn Féin. The Irish economy looked good on paper. Growth is rising and unemployment is low. Leo Varadkar called the election hoping to capitalise on the strength of the economy and public support for his role as an effective Brexit negotiator.

But Varadkar’s gamble backfired, as many voters saw that only the very rich have benefited from the boom and that inequality is deepening. A severe social-housing crisis, and the inability of most young middle-class people to get on the housing ladder, has turned younger voters off the mainstream parties.

Meanwhile, the gruesome death of a young teenage boy in a drug-related killing exposed the scale of the drugs problem, and made organised crime a major election issue. When a council vehicle almost killed a homeless man sleeping in a tent beside the Grand Canal in Dublin, it shone a spotlight on the dire state of Dublin’s homelessness problem.

These issues painted a different picture, and the election became dominated by discussion of the harsh consequences of the neoliberal economic policies pursued by Fine Gael, with the acquiescence of Fianna Fáil.

Some of Sinn Féin’s candidates were well paced to benefit from this. Housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin, for example, emerged as a brilliantly articulate operator during the election campaign, often running rings around Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael spokespeople in media debates.

The appalling state of the health service was another big issue, especially for working-class people. And Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson, Louise O’Reilly, was another rising star of the campaign. Astute and on top of her brief, she won the backing of angry voters as she ruthlessly challenged the health minister in repeated TV and radio discussions.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has surrounded herself with a compelling and charismatic group of politicians who voters clearly like and believe will deliver change. In economic and finance spokesperson Pearse Docherty, Sinn Féin has one of the most able politicians in the country.

This all helped Sinn Féin to break out of its traditional working-class base, and win over different demographics to vote for them for the first time. The party now has the overwhelming support of 18- to 30-year-olds and leads in every age group under 65.

As the surge in support for Sinn Féin started to become clear, panic set in among the establishment. In a bid to dissuade potential first-time Sinn Féin voters, who some thought might be unaware of the party’s former links to the IRA, politicians and the media dragged up the most grievous and tragic ‘IRA atrocities’, including alleged punishment shootings and rapes.

But as the votes were counted this weekend, the voters of Ireland once again demonstrated that cynical smear campaigns no longer work. In the end, it was not Sinn Féin’s history that the voters cared about – it was the record of the two parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who have dominated politics for almost 100 years.

The electorate of the Irish Republic is more interested in looking forward than back. The Troubles are over. Growing numbers of people are fed up with what they perceive to be the unfairness and selfishness of the Tweedledee and Tweedledum politics of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

For better or worse, the Irish people, in large numbers, voted for what Sinn Féin called its ‘radical republican programme of change’. Time will tell if it was a wise choice. But as we head towards the centenary of the partition of Ireland, the old political mould has been shattered and it is all to play for.

Kevin Rooney is co-author of The Blood-Stained Poppy.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Simon mccullagh

21st February 2020 at 9:36 am

When Bertie Ahern was in power it didn’t matter what scandals were going on as long as the economy was doing great no-body cared much. Now wokeness has infiltrated Ireland and the political establishment has been corrupt and negligent, so we have a protest vote for SF. It can’t and won’t last. As soon as the BS politics starts to affect people’s wallets Ireland will change again. We are pathologically concerned about roofs over our heads and dinner on the table. The business community in Ireland will see it and the news will quickly spread throughout the country, https://www.seoservicesni.com/managed-seo-services/the-truth-about-search-engine-optimisation-ireland/

Hugo van der Meer

14th February 2020 at 11:29 pm

The troubles, a euphemism for mindless sectarian violence, are only just beginning. Sinn Féin whooping it up in the streets of Belfast is an abomination and can not be separated from the atrocities perpetrated by the IRA murderers of which Sinn Féin are and will forever be linked as the political wing of those who callously maimed and tortured any one who got in their way. They are criminals with as much blood on their hands as any British soldier. Sinn Féin were the force behind the IRA and this is a vote for much more of the same. The streets of Belfast will ignite one again, they can’t help themselves.

Gerard Barry

12th February 2020 at 4:22 pm

As an Irishman living in Germany, it’s fascinating, but also maddening, to compare politics in the two countries. In Ireland, a left-leaning nationalist “populist” party (Sinn Fein) with ties to a terrorist organisation can top the polls and a great portion of the “liberal” establishment (e.g. the media) think it’s great. Here in Germany, meanwhile, a new right-leaning “populist” party (the AfD) with no links to terrorism or no dubious past (the party was only formed in 2012!) is denounced by the entire establishment as being “fascist”, “far-right”, “racist”, etc. Even any association with the party leads to heads rolling (e.g. the Thüringen debacle). The mind boggles.

Hugo van der Meer

14th February 2020 at 11:39 pm

Gerrard. Precisely. The liberal marxist apologists enjoy twisting reality to suit their narrative whilst demonising whatever doesn’t conform to their distorted viewpoint.

Jim Lawrie

10th February 2020 at 10:09 pm

I saw Varadkar on Brexit not as as a representation of Irish independence, but rather as a lackey for Brussels, doing their bidding by trying to interfere in British politics. He thought he was impressing The Irish by sticking it to the British. Trouble is, The Irish are not anti-British, so it is not possible to play your way out of trouble with that card. He also failed to realise that people saw straight through that.

Jonnie Henly

11th February 2020 at 2:48 am

You do know his stance was supported by all the other main parties right?

Jim Lawrie

11th February 2020 at 10:45 am

As usual Jonnie you reply to what was not posted. I spoke about the electorate, you speak of “all the other main parties”. Are there so many that you cannot list them?

The electorate rejected The EU in a referendum, but were threatened and made to vote again by “the main parties”.

The support of “all the other main parties” did not stop Varadkar from losing his seat. It also does not create a majority in Northern Ireland in favour an independence referendum, as required by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).
Sinn Fein made it a condition of support for a coalition government in the south that there be a poll on Irish unity. They want a majority in the South to be enough, thus ripping up the GFA. Without it, a border poll in the North cannot be mandated, but a border can be implemented.
Or maybe SF think they can order a poll in N Ireland from the comfort of The Dail. They’re stupid enough to try a stunt like that, and the other parties weak enough to think playing the Nationalist card will make them relevant. Such a game of Russian Roulette will tell us if SF have really broken with their past, or if they are still committee room, closed doors and intimidation.
My own view is that SF will start to pay less heed to their supporters in The North, and more lip service to them.

Gareth Edward KING

10th February 2020 at 5:36 pm

Well, Sin Fien can’t have it both ways with support for Irish Independence but contradicting itself whilst supporting the EU. Something has to give so that it supports national Independence across the British Isles. I never understood why its supposed pluckiness has meant acquiescence to the EU’s structures.

Jonnie Henly

10th February 2020 at 5:50 pm

Why can’t they?

James Knight

10th February 2020 at 6:47 pm

The question for the UK is if they can now muck up the Brexit exit negotiations, or if that will just help the UK to have a no deal exit.

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