Sinn Fein Just Upended Ireland’s Status Quo. What Comes Next?

Disgruntled Irish voters have made their voices heard, but translating that mandate into a governing coalition won’t be easy.

Sinn Fein supporters sing as they hold an Irish flag during the Dublin City count.
Sinn Fein supporters sing as they hold an Irish flag during the Dublin City count in Dublin, Ireland, on Feb. 9, 2020. Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

“THE SHINNERS TAKE IT ALL” blared the front page of the Irish Daily Star on Monday, using a slang term for Sinn Fein supporters, as it became clear that a true electoral earthquake had hit Ireland. As exit polls showed Brexit was a nonissue compared to Ireland’s housing and health crises, voters turned on the establishment parties that have been leading them since the foundation of the state a century ago.

With a plurality of votes going to her party, Sinn Fein’s left-wing nationalist leader, Mary Lou McDonald, declared that Ireland is “no longer a two-party system.” It’s hard to argue with her. Every election since the 1922 founding of what is now called the Republic of Ireland  has led to a victory for either of the country’s two large centrist parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Simply put, in the nearly 100 years since the island of Ireland was divided in two, something like this has never happened.

Other records were set, too. In what was meant to be his party’s post-Brexit victory lap, Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar watched as Sinn Fein topped the poll in his multiseat constituency of Dublin West. He eventually won his seat back after the fifth round of counting, but it’s the first time a sitting taoiseach has failed to win the most votes on his own turf.

With Fine Gael receiving their lowest share of votes since 1948, Varadkar will now face pressure to resign as party leader, although no major figures within the party have called for it. Support for Ireland’s two big parties had been trending down over a number of general elections, but their combined vote share of 43 percent on Saturday is the lowest ever.

Is this the end of the Fine Gael-Fianna Fail duopoly?

Even with Saturday’s dramatic result, it’s still too early to write off Fine Gael, which has previously revived its fortunes after suffering electoral setbacks, most recently bouncing back from a trouncing in 2002 to top polls in 2011 following the global financial crisis. Fianna Fail, which, like Fine Gael, was formed in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War and whose political program closely resembles its rival’s, however, is still struggling to regain public trust since that same crisis. In 2011, it won only 17.5 of first preference votes as it lost 51 seats. On Saturday, it managed to earn 22.2 percent of first preference votes but ended with just one more seat than Sinn Fein—a draw in reality given that one seat goes to the parliament’s outgoing speaker uncontested.

It’s not unprecedented for a previously dominant party to disappear from the political scene. Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party collapsed in 1993’s federal elections, losing 167 out of 169 seats, and it never recovered. “Fianna Fail’s collapse really started in the financial crisis of 2008, didn’t register until that 2011 election, and essentially has been going on ever since,” said Richard Katz, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies the evolution of large political parties. For Katz, the old loyalties that propped up Ireland’s main parties are dissolving with time. “The old party system, derived from Ireland’s civil war based on what side your father or your grandfather was on, doesn’t work so well when it’s your great-grandfather: You never even met him,” he said.

Does this mean a Sinn Fein-led government?

Despite the history made in Saturday’s results, party support has become so fragmented that it’s still no clean victory for Sinn Fein. Final seat allocations put Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, and Sinn Fein at 35, 38, and 37 seats, respectively. Barring a confidence-and-supply arrangement, in which parties agree to support the government on certain critical votes, it’s now up to the parties to find a way to reach the 80 seats needed to form a majority.

A Sinn Fein-led left coalition seems to be on the table, after confirmed reports of early contact being made between Irish Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin and Sinn Fein’s McDonald, with the two set to meet on Wednesday. Even if the conversation proves fruitful, Sinn Fein will need a lot more than Labour’s six seats.

Indeed, even with the support of Ireland’s other left-wing parties, they would still come up short of a majority. Gaining the support of the sizable independent cohort in the Dail Eireann, the lower house of the Irish legislature, could make the math add up, but that may involve more backroom dealing than Sinn Fein is willing to put up with.

Fianna Fail is traditionally skeptical of Sinn Fein due to the party’s past IRA links, and any decision to enter into government must be approved by the rank and file of both parties.

Another scenario that’s only slightly less complicated would involve an alliance between Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail, with a third partner likely needed in the form of the Green Party or independents. Fianna Fail’s leader, Micheal Martin, already swallowed his pride last Sunday and made a U-turn on his campaign promise not to enter a coalition with Sinn Fein. After decades in the political wilderness, Sinn Fein may see the opportunity as too good to pass up.

However, such an outcome would still involve complicated tradeoffs: Although Sinn Fein won more votes, Fianna Fail would hold one more seat. Defining who the junior partner in such a government would lead to some awkward arrangements, including a “rotating taoiseach” where each party leader would take it in turns to lead the government—something that has never happened in Ireland.

There’s also the question of grassroots approval. Fianna Fail is traditionally skeptical of Sinn Fein due to the party’s past IRA links, and any decision to enter into government must be approved by the rank and file of both parties. A Fianna Fail member in Dublin, speaking anonymously in order to discuss internal party decision-making, said that “there would be a strong feeling against [coalition] amongst Fianna Fail’s grassroots” and that despite alignment on many policy issues, there remains a “deep suspicion of Sinn Fein.”

If no Sinn Fein or Fianna Fail-led coalition can be agreed on, a new election would have to be called.

How would Sinn Fein approach foreign policy?

Ireland has never had a government led by a left-wing party, so such a party’s approach would likely differ in style from that of its predecessors. Still, the three main parties are aligned on issues such as Brexit, the European Union, and maintaining Ireland’s attractive 12.5 percent corporate tax rate.

Sinn Fein’s manifesto says it would end Ireland’s involvement in the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation, which it sees as a precursor to an EU army, as well as ending membership in NATO’s Partnership for Peace. It also proposes taking its anti-militarism a step further by holding a referendum on writing Ireland’s historical practice of neutrality into the Irish Constitution.

The U.S. military’s use of Shannon Airport on Ireland’s west coast as a refueling point is likely to come under scrutiny, too. In August 2019, Sinn Fein’s foreign affairs spokesperson Sean Crowe accused the Irish government of effectively turning the airport “into a forward base of the U.S. military” and called on Varadkar’s government to “end this violation of Irish neutrality and restore Shannon Airport as a civilian airport.”

What about Northern Ireland?

Sinn Fein’s all-island bona fides were further strengthened by Saturday’s vote: It can now claim a Sinn Fein member of parliament in all 32 counties of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

If Sinn Fein manages to enter into power, a promise to vote on Irish reunification (commonly known as a “border poll”) within the lifetime of that government is likely to be a key plank of the new administration’s agenda and a negotiating red line before any coalition is formed. Although Saturday’s exit polls indicate 57 percent of Irish voters support a border poll, it’s not possible to say whether that translates to a vote for unification. An independent poll taken in Northern Ireland last August and September put supporters and detractors of unification in a statistical tie.

If a Sinn Fein-Fianna Fail coalition does end up in power, it could not only lead to coordination between Sinn Fein and its northern members but also allow Fianna Fail to make the most of its partnership formed in 2019 with Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Ireland’s leading nationalist parties speaking with one voice could spook hard-line unionists, who favor loyalty to the United Kingdom, something Tom Kelly, a former vice chairman of the SDLP writing in the Belfast Telegraph, was able to put in context: “Unionists will be nervous about Sinn Fein in the Irish Government, but not overly so, because they have had to share power with Sinn Fein for 20 years.”

Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster appeared to pour cold water on any possible border poll in a tweet pointing to the relative decline in support for pro-unification parties in past Northern Ireland elections. “Irrespective of the view in Dublin or Brussels, a border poll can only be called by [the British secretary of state] if it appears likely to secure a majority in Northern Ireland,” she wrote dismissively. “No such circumstances exist in Northern Ireland.”

Given Foster’s Northern Irish party’s poor performance in the December 2019 U.K. general election—in which it lost two key seats and its kingmaker status in Westminster—Northern Ireland is now represented in the British Parliament by more nationalist MPs than unionist ones for the first time in its history. As a result, the circumstances that she claims don’t exist are edging ever closer.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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