Will Irish Elections Lead to Unification?

After Saturday’s vote, the nationalist Sinn Fein party could form parts of governments in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for the first time in history.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin (left), Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar (center), and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald take part in the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin (left), Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar (center), and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald take part in the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Dublin, Ireland, on Feb. 4, 2020. Niall Carson/AFP/Getty Images

The United Kingdom has officially withdrawn from the European Union, and this weekend voters in Ireland will go to the polls in what could turn out to be one of the country’s most transformative elections in a century. The ruling Fine Gael party’s positive record on Brexit matters little to voters, increasing the chances that the leading opposition party, Fianna Fail, will return to power for the first time in a decade. By the time the dust settles, however, Fianna Fail will likely find itself well short of a majority, meaning it will have to pull together support from a collection of smaller parties to form a government.

One of those parties could be the staunchly nationalist, pro-Irish unity Sinn Fein. Brexit has reopened the debate over Irish unification, and if Sinn Fein wins enough seats to join a coalition with one of the larger parties, it could reshape the conversation by putting the party in the governments of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for the first time in history.

What is the political situation?

Fine Gael initially hoped to stake its reelection campaign on its positive record in government. The Irish economy saw the highest growth rate of any EU country in 2019, and its unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in 13 years. On Brexit, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar and his team secured a withdrawal agreement from the United Kingdom that met Dublin’s main condition—namely, that the border with Northern Ireland would remain open. Despite these successes, an ongoing housing crisis and inadequate health services have leveled a blow against the government that it so far has been unable to overcome.

Health and housing are the campaign issues that have been at the forefront of voters’ minds, and although Fianna Fail is best positioned to capitalize on Fine Gael’s misfortune, Sinn Fein seems to have been the biggest beneficiary. A recent Irish Times opinion poll put its support at 25 percent, first among all parties.

Sinn Fein has a peculiar place in Irish politics. It is the former political wing of the paramilitary Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), and after spending much of the 1970s and 1980s as a pariah, the party developed a comprehensive social and economic program in the 1990s and 2000s that included a commitment to nonviolent methods and progressive politics. It took time for its left-wing populist message to gain traction with voters, but after the financial crisis devastated the Irish economy in 2008, a large section of the electorate was ready for radical change, and Sinn Fein was propelled into the political mainstream.

The party has focused this campaign on health and housing. “We’ve made very significant commitments to how to invest in good-quality public service provision in areas of health, housing, and child care, particularly targeted at giving workers and families a break,” said Eoin O Broin, Sinn Fein’s housing spokesman who is fighting for reelection in the Dublin Mid-West constituency. The party’s commitment to the issues closest to voter concerns has helped boost its fortunes.

Sinn Fein’s paramilitary past has given it a black mark in the Irish political landscape, and both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have always kept it at arm’s length. But for voters, several changes have occurred in the past 10 years that have made Sinn Fein more palatable, including Brexit.

“I suspect what Brexit has done is it’s made Irish nationalism—a really aggressive Irish nationalism, or anti-British Irish nationalism—more mainstream and more acceptable,” said Eoin O’Malley, a professor at Dublin City University and an expert on Irish politics, “which makes Sinn Fein’s position more mainstream and acceptable.”

What is the most likely outcome?

Despite Sinn Fein’s impressive poll numbers, the next government will most likely be led by Fianna Fail. But none of the largest parties can realistically hope to win a majority of seats, meaning the real question will be whom Fianna Fail can form a government with.

None of the possible outcomes is particularly likely. A potential grand coalition with Fine Gael would be politically impossible, and Fianna Fail’s preferred outcome of leading a so-called rainbow coalition consisting of the constellation of smaller left-wing parties that dot the political landscape would probably be too unstable to last. The more intriguing question is whether Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein will shed past animosities and go into government together.

The histories of both parties are rooted in militant republicanism. Fianna Fail emerged out of a 1926 split within Sinn Fein and drew much of its early membership from the IRA after its failure to overthrow the newly established Irish Free State during the 1922-1923 Civil War. Although Fianna Fail abandoned violence and entered constitutional politics in 1927, more than seven decades before Sinn Fein did (giving it time to adopt a center-right social democratic identity vastly different from Sinn Fein’s far-left nationalist project), elements within the party continued to sympathize with militant republicanism. As late as the early 1970s, senior members of Fianna Fail were expelled from the frontbenches of the Irish legislature after they illegally organized an internal scheme to funnel weapons to the nascent Provisional IRA. For some, those broad historical and ideological similarities make a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition feel almost natural.

Could Sinn Fein end up in government?

It won’t be an easy sell. Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin is a fierce critic of Sinn Fein, and he has ruled out the possibility of going into government with the party on several occasions. Grassroots members of Fianna Fail told Foreign Policy that it’s unlikely the wider party membership would support such an arrangement.

But below the surface, the picture is more complicated. Fianna Fail’s brand is inextricably linked to state power, and after 10 years on the opposition benches, the desire to return to government is palpable.

“Even though Fianna Fail has insisted that it won’t do so, and I think Micheal Martin is sincere in believing that he doesn’t want to do so,” said O’Malley, “I do think it’s his last chance to become taoiseach … and I suspect that it will be very difficult for him to just walk away from that.”

In some quarters of Fianna Fail, a quiet openness toward Sinn Fein has sometimes bubbled to the surface. In August 2017, the Irish Times reported that several Fianna Fail frontbench members of the Irish parliament were open to a coalition with Sinn Fein, and, more recently, Pat Gallagher, a Fianna Fail lawmaker from Donegal, said he would personally prefer that outcome. “The numbers look like that will be the only realistic option,” O’Malley added.

Of course, even if Fianna Fail did choose to engage with Sinn Fein, the offer would have to be sweet enough for it to accept.

“We’ve said very clearly that we will talk to any parties and all parties after the election,” said O Broin. “But the kind of deal we would be insisting on would be dramatically different from anything that’s gone before.” For Sinn Fein, the price for going into government would be a commitment to comprehensive investment in public services and serious preparations for a referendum on Irish unification.

What would it mean for Irish unity?

The unity question will be paramount during the government formation process. Although Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein both support unification of Northern Ireland and the republic, they have publicly clashed over the timing of a referendum. Sinn Fein has repeatedly called for one within the lifetime of the next government, whereas Fianna Fail has taken a much more cautious approach, saying a referendum should only happen when the “conditions are right.”

Dublin, however, is very limited in what it can do to push for a unity referendum. “An Irish government can’t unilaterally say, ‘Yes, we’re going to give you a border poll [unity referendum],’ because it’s the U.K. secretary of state for Northern Ireland who makes that decision,” O’Malley said. “So all you can do is say, ‘Yes, we’re going to ask very strenuously for one,’ but you can’t do anything about it.”

Still, for unification to take effect, a referendum would have to pass in both Northern Ireland and the republic, so the southern side is not insignificant. Further, unionists in Northern Ireland—those who want the country to remain part of the United Kingdom—are primarily concerned about what their future would look like inside a united Ireland, so the outcome of a border poll there would be partly dependent on how welcoming and conciliatory the Dublin government can show itself to be.

Rhetoric notwithstanding, the timing of a border poll may prove to be a secondary concern. Neither Fianna Fail’s nor Sinn Fein’s election manifesto mentions timing, both focusing instead on the details of the consultative process required to lay the groundwork for a referendum. This suggests that, if Fianna Fail does choose to engage Sinn Fein in coalition talks, the timing of a border poll won’t be a red line for either party, meaning unity could still be a top priority for the next government.

The result could be historic: The decision to hold a border poll would remain the prerogative of the British government, but the combined force of a resurgent Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland (where Sinn Fein forms part of the devolved administration) and a staunchly pro-unity Irish government could be enough to move London in that direction. It is unclear how a border poll would ultimately turn out (and especially what the longer-term consequences could be), but Saturday’s elections could be part of a broader trend leading to Irish unification.

Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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