Northern Ireland celebrate “Partition of our Island of Ireland” and its Centenary but what have Sinn Fein to say? Guardian newspaper article.

Posted by

Sinn Féin

‘Not if … but when’: Sinn Féin on path to power in Ireland

The party is riding high in polls and could complete a seismic shift in Irish politics in three years’ time

‘I want to be taoiseach,’ the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, told the party’s annual conference

‘I want to be taoiseach,’ the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, told the party’s annual conference. Photograph: Damien Storan/PALisa O’Carroll in Dublin@lisaocarrollTue 28 Dec 2021 05.00 GMT

Last modified on Wed 29 Dec 2021 18.03 GMT

Just 30 years ago the IRA was bombing Downing Street, launching three mortar bombs at No 10 while John Major presided over a cabinet meeting.

In 2021, Sinn Féin, the political party associated with the IRA for much of the Troubles, has moved into pole position to lead the Irish government in what could be the biggest shake-up of the state’s politics since its foundation 100 years ago.

Ireland is three years out from the next general election and a victory for Sinn Féin or any other party is far from assured, but the slow seismic shift in Irish politics has barely merited a mention outside the country despite the change in dynamics it is already creating.

“It is not a question of if, it’s when Sinn Féin will be in power,” said one prominent businessman who did not want to be named.

Such is their transformation south of the border and the continued courting of the middle classes, that it is creating tensions over the party identity north of the border.

Before Christmas one of its most respected TDs, the spokesperson for housing, Eoin Ó Broin, called on Gerry Adams to apologise for a Christmas sketch, joking about a slogan associated with the IRA. In a bygone era this subordination would have been a matter of discipline.

Commentators have put the party’s remarkable growth south of the border partly down to the transformational powers of its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, who has no connection with the Troubles era and is perceived as a radical break with the past.

But it is also down to a change in tacticsputting issues such as housing, the economy and health ahead of a united Ireland – that is seen as extending its appeal beyond the working-class estates that were formerly its stronghold.

Sinn Féin MPs Owen Carron and Gerry Adams with Christy Burke, the party’s candidate for Dublin Central, in 1983

Sinn Féin MPs Owen Carron and Gerry Adams with Christy Burke, the party’s candidate for Dublin Central, in 1983. Photograph: Independent News and Media/Getty Images

Poll after poll shows it stretching its lead after a breakthrough year over the two parties that have dominated Irish politics for a century. According to a mid-December Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, support for Sinn Féin now stands at 35%, a seemingly unbridgeable gap for the two main parties of the coalition government – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – who were at 20% apiece. Previous polls have put Sinn Féin at 32% and 33%.

The Labour peer Andrew Adonis, who went to Dublin in October to observe the party at its conference and has written a 3,000-word piece for February’s issue of Prospect on its rise, said: “You can see a political revolution taking place before your eyes.

“This is going to sound like an amazing thing to say but it is true, the thirst for power and the discipline behind the leader to win power reminded me of New Labour in the 1990s.”

The businessman spoke of how the party was polishing its electability day by day, making pronouncements to remove traces of links to past darkness and announcing policies deliberately aimed at “detoxifying” Sinn Féin for the middle classes. Notably, it did not fight the government on low corporate tax, and has said it will only increase taxes for “the top 3%”.

McDonald told the party faithful gathered for the Ard Fheis that the pandemic had exposed the broken housing system, a dearth of rental accommodation, the inadequate health service, and the rising cost of living. Soon after she flew to the US, where she gave speeches to the National Press Club in Washington DC and the New York Bar Association on the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland and the potential for the unification of the island of Ireland.

The party has also been reaching out to business groups in an effort to detoxify its standing in corporate circles. A report in Ireland’s Sunday Business Post noted that while McDonald “likes to accuse the government of rolling out the red carpet for vulture funds and institutional investors”, its analysis of the lobbying register revealed that commercial entities who had previously avoided contact with the party were trying to open channels of communication.

Sinn Féin is a secretive and highly disciplined party, with its members rarely out of step with what the leadership commands. The report also said McDonald instructed its members to reach out to businesses, unions and sectoral groups as part of preparations for government.

The chance of a Sinn Féin in government in Dublin raises the prospect of the republican party in power both north and south of the border, something that could change the relationship with the UK dramatically and influence the debate, which is gathering pace south of the border, on the prospect of a united Ireland.

Polls show that it has a chance of being the largest party in the May 2022 elections for the Stormont assembly.

Sinn Féin souvenirs on sale before a 2020 public meeting at Liberty Hall, Dublin

Sinn Féin souvenirs on sale before a 2020 public meeting at Liberty Hall, Dublin. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Reuters

Its rise in the Republic was first signalled in 2020 when after a surge in support it won the most first preference votes in the February general election. The results did not translate into power because the party fielded 42 candidates in a race for 159, but “generated momentous shifts within the political landscape”, said Agnès Maillot, a politics lecturer at Dublin City University and author of Rebels in Government, a new book on Sinn Féin. “Until 2020, its progress could be described as a protest vote,” she said.

The historian Diarmaid Ferriter said 2020 marked greater success with middle-class and affluent voters and the party had evolved by “compromising and adapting”. “This is the party of Gerry Adams’ legacy. In many respects he is the architect of this in the sense that he adapted Sinn Féin for constitutional purposes … He qualified their purist positions at various junctures from the 1980s onwards.”

Ferriter said the expediency of Sinn Féin was nothing new. The party used to abstain from politics in Westminster and Dublin, abandoning its stance on the latter in the late 1980s. Another important juncture was the 1998 referendum removing an article in Ireland’s constitution claiming sovereignty over 32 counties to pave the way for the Good Friday agreement.

“Their acceptance of the existence of Northern Ireland was another juncture as they were accepting the principle of consent. All these compromises made them more palatable,” said Ferriter.

Sinn Féin’s future success will depend on how it fares in opposition over the next three years as popular policies on housing and health come under more scrutiny and the question of its past gets pushed to the fore.

Ferriter drew parallels with Fianna Fáil in the wake of the civil war and independence in 1921. It was marked as a party “in the shadow of the gunmen” but “got over that fairly quickly by emphasising they had impeccable conservative credentials and they weren’t communist and they weren’t godless”, he said.

“Sinn Féin will obviously be dealing with the legacies from the Troubles which crop up every so often but it doesn’t seem to dent their momentum, which suggests that this change is generational,” he added.

Kevin Cunningham, a former targeting and analysis manager for the UK’s Labour party who is now a lecturer in politics at Technological University Dublin, sees Sinn Féin’s rise as a function of a nation growing in confidence and shifting away from the politics of civil war that created the two main parties on the island.

“Since around 1980 and the decline in religiosity of Ireland, you see a fairly steady rise in the number of people voting for, or supporting, political parties that identify themselves on the left,” he said.

“Fianna Fáil plus the Fine Gael vote stood at around 80% all the way up to 1980 and then decade after decade it just steadily declined.

“Other parties existed on the left through those years. The [Social] Democrats and the Labour party, in particular, have been unbelievably weak but at the same time there has been a subset of the population self-identifying as being on the left and Sinn Féin’s capturing that and to some extent that is the kind of normalisation of politics in Ireland.”He added: “When we ask people why they vote for Sinn Fein the dominant reason is that they want a change from Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Very few people cite anything that the party or its leader is promoting”.

This article was amended on 28 & 29 December 2021. In an earlier version the quote from Kevin Cunningham referred to “the Progressive Democrats” when “Social Democrats” was meant. A further quote from Cunningham was added. Also a reference to Sinn Féin as “founded in 1905” was removed. To clarify: The republican movement founded in that year evolved into a number of organisations which carried the name. The party now led by McDonald was founded in 1970.You’ve read

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s