Left Tide in Ireland

Parish-pump politics has underpinned elections in the Republic of Ireland for many years. In sending politicians to parliament, voters often think hyper-locally, foregrounding parochial issues and punishing representatives who neglect their home constituencies. The result is a frustrating lack of creative policy ideas and long-term planning at the national level, along with a cronyist and clientelist political culture that permeates the entire polity.

Yet the February 2020 general election demonstrated a series of shifts – social, political, ideological – that threaten to disrupt this decades-old pattern. For the first time, more voted for Sinn Féin, running on a social-democratic platform, than any other party. It secured 535,595 votes, next to Fianna Fáil’s 484,320 and Fine Gael’s 455,584. But because of Ireland’s proportional representation system, and Sinn Féin’s strategic error in not fielding enough candidates to fully capitalize on its vote-share, the division of seats was almost evenly split: 38 for the populist centre-right Fianna Fáil, 37 for Sinn Féin, 35 for the Thatcherite Fine Gael.

Sinn Féin has evolved from what is broadly described as the political wing of the IRA, and now occupies an odd space in Irish politics: a left-populist party whose policies are pitched at a newly politicized generation, but whose identity is tied to nationalist ideals that chime with an older demographic, many of whom imbibed the free-market orthodoxies of the Celtic Tiger. Its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, does not come from Sinn Féin’s traditional pool of Northern republicans with erstwhile paramilitary affiliations. A charismatic 51-year-old from Dublin, she is popular with female voters and has expanded the party’s growing base in working-class urban areas since becoming leader in 2018. Meanwhile, the party’s Northern arm has returned to Stormont after a three-year hiatus under the leadership of Michelle O’Neil. Sinn Féin’s aim of eroding partition by accumulating power in all 32 counties is back on course.

Analysis of the astonishing 2020 election results was soon eclipsed by the pandemic and the protracted process of government formation. With the Fine Gael-led caretaker administration mounting a relatively effective Covid-19 response, and Fianna Fáil desperate to install their leader, Micheál Martin, as Taoiseach, the country’s longstanding political establishment gained a new lease of life last May. The coalition government, formed after months of negotiation, comprised Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. It settled on a ‘rotating Taoiseach’ arrangement: giving the job to Martin initially, with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar agreeing to serve as deputy before assuming the post again in two years’ time. This outcome – a damp squib belying the profound political shift evinced by the election – gave rise to a chaotic, old-new power-bloc which has since lurched from crisis to scandal to mishap.

Yet within this maelstrom, the most significant change of 2020 may not be the rise of Sinn Féin, nor even the electorate’s clearly articulated disenchantment with the Fianna Fáil–Fine Gael duopoly (one of these parties has served in every government since the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922). No, it was rather that the electorate appeared to turn away from their localities and zoom out, voting on national issues in a national election. Added to that, the haze that has traditionally obscured Ireland’s left–right divisions (a symptom of the near-identical centre-right colouration of the ruling parties) seemed to lift, and people began discussing politics in those agonistic terms.

If, as the veteran Irish current-affairs journalist Vincent Browne once remarked, the problem with politics in Ireland is the lack of politics – if the electorate is typically asked to measure the subtle distinctions between two outfits cut from the same conservative cloth – 2020 ruptured this setup. The election was no longer a hair-splitting contest but an ideological struggle, forcing each party to set out its vision – or lack thereof – for the post-recessionary period. Fine Gael, having been in power since 2011 (first in coalition with the Labour Party, then in a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with Fianna Fáil), clearly resented this development. After a self-satisfied campaign in which they avoided discussing Ireland’s overlapping social crises (particularly in housing and healthcare), they came away astounded by the electorate’s failure to reward them for ten years of austerity, plus a warped ‘recovery’ in which rents skyrocketed, homelessness soared, and tens of thousands emigrated.

Baffled by this transformation, Ireland’s national media came increasingly to sound like international observers, assessing the events from afar and distilling them for a foreign audience. People ‘voted for change’, they said, without specifying which people or what kind. Voters, especially in young and previously disengaged demographics, had clearly gravitated towards Sinn Féin – long the black sheep of Irish party politics. Yet beneath that movement was a grassroots campaign whose simple instruction was expressed by its hashtag: #VoteLeftTransferLeft. This sentiment cut through, catapulting inexperienced candidates to parliament on the back of the Sinn Féin brand, and enabling most far-left contenders (from the Trotskyist parliamentary bloc Solidarity–People Before Profit) to retain their seats.

In one sense, Ireland’s 2011 election was just as seismic: voters instigated the third highest turnover of parliamentarians in any Western democracy since World War II. Yet this was occasioned by a singular event – the economic calamity overseen by Fianna Fáil, and the consequent imperative to expel them from power – rather than a secular trend. The social fragmentation wrought by the recession of the 2010s saw another bizarre pattern play out in the forgotten 2014 local elections, which returned a staggering 193 independent politicians, while increasing Sinn Féin’s tally of local councilors from 54 to 159 (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael won 267 and 235 seats respectively). This erratic showing testified to a growing political vacuum, and a disorientated electorate with little enthusiasm for any party. Much of that floating vote now appears to have settled (albeit temporarily, perhaps) on Sinn Féin, whose identification with the left – and emphasis on social issues alongside Irish unity – has increased under McDonald’s leadership.

Amid Sinn Féin’s rejuvenation, there has been a burgeoning sense that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil represent an outmoded twentieth-century political orthodoxy. Ireland’s social revolution – whose landmarks were the referenda on marriage equality in 2015 and abortion in 2018 – began long before those votes, as the 2008 economic collapse coincided with the ongoing decline of the Catholic Church, compounded by revelations of historic sexual abuse and brutality in the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes. The consequent ructions to the national psyche created an opening for Sinn Féin to alter the ideological consensus, whose standard-bearing parties, having reinforced the power of the Church for much of the last century, are now desperate to diminish that association – hence their token adoption of socially liberal policies over the past decade. The Repeal and marriage equality campaigns created a primarily millennial political bloc led by women and queer people, whose formation is a far cry from Sinn Féin’s often highly macho republican tradition, but whose insurgent energy – and single-issue focus – has nonetheless harmonized with the party’s progressive platform.

The 2020 election rearticulated the nebulous sense of discontent we saw in 2014, yet this time its object – the ‘quality of life’ issues affected by Fine Gael’s austerity programme – was more clearly focalized: poor planning, urban gentrification, grinding commutes, lengthy hospital waiting lists, a multifaceted housing crisis that had rendered over 10,000 people homeless, crippling rent, inflated property prices, expensive childcare and unmanageable living costs. Meanwhile, the ruling party’s abstract metrics of success – reduced unemployment and GDP – felt meaningless to many voters. Our economy was apparently ‘booming’, but for whom? We were said to have ‘turned a corner’, but to where? With EU backing, Fine Gael may have struck an authoritative note when it came to negotiating Brexit (though that was hardly difficult compared to the chaotic and cartoonish Tories), but whether they could protect the Irish people from its impact, given their dogmatic aversion to stimulus spending, was another matter entirely.

Though Fine Gael tried to cash-in on the ‘recovery’, voters recognized that this return to growth was not a monolithic process. By and large, they approved of new independent businesses but rejected hyper-gentrification. They accepted the need for urban development, but not the kind that began to pockmark Dublin’s city centre at an alarming pace: luxury student accommodation, five-star hotels and socially corrosive ‘co-living’ developments. Tourism was welcome, but AirBnB’s unchecked accumulation of housing stock was not (leading activists to occupy the company’s Dublin headquarters in 2018). Unemployment had dramatically decreased from its peak of 17.3% during the recession, but it was hard to ignore the minimal tax intake from the Big Tech companies – including the government’s determined refusal to claim back €13bn worth of public revenue from Apple despite the orders of the European Commission.

While many analysts have come to terms with the fact that Sinn Féin are currently the main benefactors of this diffuse appetite for change, it remains to be seen whether they will retain this position – or whether the intergenerational coalition they’ve assembled will eventually come apart. Indeed, if the underlying dynamic is an electorate shocked out of localism by a decade of national upheaval, there are others who stand to gain from this trend. Fine Gael, having reached across the aisle to its historic rival, and steered the country through a major public health crisis, has been polling evenly with Sinn Féin – and may redouble this ‘one nation’ messaging once the post-pandemic downturn hits. Could it work? Only if the official opposition squanders its momentum, and fails to preserve the continuity between its social policies and the broader cultural transformation that has taken shape during the recessionary era.

Read on: Daniel Finn’s study of the power blocs of post-crash Ireland and opposition from the streets.