In what will probably be the top story in Irish politics this year, Sinn Fein, the oldest and most controversial political party in Ireland, scored an enormous upset in the 2020 general election, winning 37 of the 160 seats in the Irish Dail (the Irish house of representatives). The results sent shockwaves across Ireland and Europe, as many are suspicious of a return to prominence by a political party with a turbulent history.
The election also saw a difficult day for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Fine Gael party who finished in third place and held on to only 35 seats in Dail.
Sinn Fein’s victory is a big deal for many reasons. First, the result ends the two party strangle hold on the Irish government by the centre-right parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Secondly Sinn Fein, who has long been shunned for its past associations with the IRA (Irish Republican Army), will now be at the forefront of policy making decisions but will have to attempt to form a coalition with the other parties in the Dail.
In light of these results, Sinn Fein’s leader Mary Lou Mcdonald, has boldly claimed that it is very viable that she could become the country’s next Taoiseach.
Mcdonald, born in 1969 in Rathgar, was brought up in a private catholic school before obtaining her Bachelors in English literature at Trinity College. She eventually went on to obtain her Masters in European Integration Studies at University College Limerick. Intriguingly, her political career began at Fianna Fail before switiching to Sinn Fein in 2002.
Mcdonald was elected to the Dail in 2011 and succeeded Gerry Adams in leadership of the party in 2018. Previously Adams served as the voice and face of the party for over 34 years but was constantly under scrutiny for his alleged attachments to members of the IRA.
Sinn Fein is known as a nationalist party with democratic socialist views and despite being the oldest party in the nation, it has suffered a bad reputation for once being associated with the IRA. The IRA waged a guerrilla warfare campaign against the British Military in Northern Ireland during The Troubles (1968-1998).
Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have consistently pledged not to work with Sinn Fein due to this alleged link.
Sinn Fein did not perform well in the last 2018 election which adds to the astonishments of it’s winning of the popular vote in this year’s election. Experts speculate that if the party had chosen to field more candidates, it would have easily won the majority. While Fianna Fail and Fine Gail each fielded 84 and 82 candidates respectively, Sinn Fein only fielded 42.
The election results reveal that there are issues that voters don’t think the primary parties are adequately addressing.
It is no secret that the nation is experiencing a housing crisis, especially in Dublin and many voters are looking for new solutions and perspectives. Sinn Fein has pledged to introduce legislation to reduce rent by up to 1,500 a years, via a refundable tax credit and then freezing them for three years. The party has stated that it wants to give the Central Bank the powers to cap mortgage interest rates so customers will stop being ripped off.
The party portrays itself as a champion for working families and has outlined a number of proposals to help the middle class and bolster the economy. A few of these proposals include returning the pension age to 65 and reducing the cost of childcare by an average of 500 per child per month. The party has stated that they want to abolish the property tax which they say will save families an average of 244 per year.
For all their ambitious strategies, they claim no borrowing will be required to fund these projects. They project that tax payers who earn under 100,000 a year will see a decrease in their taxes of up to 700 a year.
Ironically, Sinn Fein’s most notorious position, which aims at the reunification of Ireland, took a backseat in this election. Many Sinn Fein voters are of the younger generations who don’t recall or care about the party’s past nor are that concerned about a reunification with Northern Ireland. Many Irish are really just looking for a change from the current status quo.
Speaking to a Local Dubliner, Mick, who works construction and does apartment renovation, acknowledges the need for a change but is skeptical about Sinn Fein’s promises.
“We needed a change but Sinn fein might not be the answer.” He told me while eating a full Irish at the Coffee Bean café in downtown Dublin.
“Social welfare programs are out of control…..people would rather live off government welfare than get a job in Dublin….they get a job and then lose the government money.”
On bringing up the topic of Irish reunification, Mick gave his honest two cents:
“People think the Irish and the IRA were violent….The Unionists up there won’t have it. They will never allow Northern Ireland to join the republic. All hell will break loose if that talk becomes serious.”
It would be hard to believe that Sinn Fein doesn’t understand the challenge and potential for serious conflict if they immediately bring an Irish Reunification referendum to the table. Mcdonald and her party would be best suited to focus on the other promises and policies they campaigned on for awhile.
Fianna Fail and Fine Gael may be forced to work with Sinn Fein and they may have to change a few of their policy positions.
Despite being rival parties, their positions are both best described as centre-right and attempting to dissect the concrete differences political philosophy between the two is not clear at face value.
Both parties generally support policies that favor businesses and desire to keep the corporation tax low so that companies from overseas will want to move to Ireland so they will pay less tax.
Both are champions of the EU and have been critical of the UK’s Brexit decision.
Fianna Fail however, generally wants to spend more than Fine Gael does on areas like health, housing and social welfare. Thus, Fine Gael usually supports lower taxes than it’s counterpart.
Despite what you would then expect however, Fine Gael is generally more liberal on social issues than Fianna Fail and had more of its members vote yes in the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment (constitutional ban on abortion).
2020 will be an exciting but potential turbulent time for Irish politics and with Brexit being confirmed this month as well, February 2020 may mark the beginning of a period of radical change in the British Isles.