The Irish election results have seen an unprecedented surge of support for Sinn Féin, overtaking both the establishment parties to win the popular vote with 24.5% of first preference votes, to Fianna Fáil’s 22.2% and Fine Gael’s 20.9%.
SF’s vote was a rejection of the two-party system, which has seen FF and FG rotate in power since the early 1930s. This rejection was overwhelmingly fuelled by anger about issues such as housing, homelessness and health.
Whatever SF’s willingness and capacity to deliver fundamental change on these issues, or its credentials as a genuinely left-wing party, the election undoubtedly represents a shift to the left in Irish society.
SF’s tack towards left-populist policies saw it effectively channel discontent with the outgoing FG government. FG were backed by FF with a confidence and supply agreement, allowing SF to cast itself as the effective opposition.
The surge of support was unpredicted, not least by SF who, after a poor showing in the European and local elections, stood only 42 candidates in the 39 multi-seat constituencies. That made them unable to capitalise fully on their popular vote in terms of seats won.
FF won 38, to SF’s 37, with FG trailing on 35. Behind that are 21 Independents, with the Greens on 12, the Social Democrats and Labour both on 6 and Solidarity-People Before Profit on 5.
SF owes a large part of its support to younger votes, disillusioned by their life and prospects in post-recession Irish society, rather than any sudden retrospective support for the Provisional IRA.
These material reasons are paramount. One relatively minor but contributory phenomenon, however, may have been the surge in online communities on social media in which republican themes are expressed through forms including Simpsons memes.
This content, fuelled in part by Brexit, and with an ironic or ambivalent edge, created a small subcultural hinterland which will have normalised SF in the eyes of some sections of the electorate, and may have eased the flow of support towards the party.
SF will have benefited too from FG’s pre-election blunder, when it proposed a state commemoration for the old colonial police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). In the wake of the row, a version of “Come Out Ye Black and Tans” by republican folk band the Wolfe Tones briefly reached first position in the Irish iTunes download charts.
In one sense this is a nationalist shift, but it is crude, however, to collapse SF completely into wider “identitarian” turns in world politics – or, as Ruth Dudley Edwards has done, compare it to the rise of the Nazis.
The party, in its modern incarnation in the South, is pro-EU, and generally understood as pro-migrant and pro-refugee, so not directly comparable even to forces such as La France Insoumise.
While SF is a bourgeois nationalist party, managing the power-sharing structures in the Six Counties, the basis of its support, its roots in the transformed but likely still-existent Provisional IRA, and the party’s opposition to sections of the Irish state apparatus such as the Special Criminal Court, will cause discomfort for the Irish ruling class. It is not yet reckoned a reliable partner to govern the Irish state, though that is clearly its aspiration and direction of travel.
How far SF has travelled along this road to “respectability” will be revealed by what it chooses to do next. It would be highly risky for the party to form a coalition with FF, a party of the establishment SF claims to oppose.
Another option would be to force FF and FG, much weakened, into an unpopular government, and prepare the way for another election in which SF could stand enough candidates to emerge as the largest party. SF is now reaching out also to the smaller parties, including the Social Democrats and the Greens, but it is difficult to see the arithmetic adding up.
A question, too, will be SF’s attitude towards the Protestant minority in the context of Brexit and the demand for an Irish unity referendum. SF leader Mary Lou McDonald has stressed the need not to “sleepwalk into disorderly constitutional change,” as the UK has done with Brexit, but to start talks on Irish unity “responsibly, thoughtfully, inclusively.”
In 2016, SF’s “Towards a United Ireland” discussion document spoke of “constitutional recognition of the unique identity of Northern unionists and the British cultural identity of a significant number of people in the North of Ireland”.
On the other hand, when celebrating his election as a TD for Waterford, SF’s David Cullinane marked the occasion by shouting “Up the ‘RA” to supporters in a local pub.
The far left had a mixed showing in the election, with People Before Profit (PBP) holding its seats but Solidarity’s Ruth Coppinger losing out in Dublin West and its total vote going down from 3.9% to 2.6%. Former Solidarity-PBP TD Paul Murphy was re-elected as a TD for his new organisation, RISE.
In a left-moving electorate, however, SF was clearly the main benefactor, with the far left reliant on transfers. In part, this represents part of the far left dissolving its focus into electoralism, competing on similar ground to SF rather than making a clear case for a socialist society, distinct from and transcending capitalism, or presenting distinctively socialist and democratic answers on the national and communal questions.
PBP, though controlled by the nominally Marxist Socialist Worker Network (SWN), ran on a left-social democratic programme. In words reminiscent of Corbyn’s Labour, or even to its right, PBP’s electoral programme was “inspired by hope for a fairer economy and a better society” with “fully costed [proposals which] rely on wealth and income distribution that targets the top 7% of the population.” The rich, it is promised, “will still have considerably more than the average worker [but] the benefit of living in a more cohesive and healthy society.”
This was not terrain on which the far left could win convincingly. The voter hoping for leftish social democratic policies to be achieved through parliamentary means was better off voting for SF, who could realistically approach a majority, as against PBP who definitely could not.