To upend a century of two-party rule, it takes an electoral earthquake. In Ireland, on Saturday, one struck.
Sinn Féin, a group long shunned for its ties to sectarian terrorists, stormed the nation’s general election, beating both of Ireland’s dominant centrist parties in the popular vote. Now starts a frantic, and likely protracted, spell of coalition-building, as the roaring republicans look to lock their mainstream rivals from government.
“Something of a revolution” was underway, said Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald as the results trickled in. She wasn’t wrong. For 90 years control of the Irish Republic has rested with two parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. On Saturday, the message from a plurality of voters was clear: no longer.
They have placed their faith in a group once associated with balaclavas and brutality, not ballot boxes and democracy. But as the IRA threat has receded, so too has the stigma of supporting Sinn Féin, which served as the militants’ political wing.
Still, Ireland’s traditional political forces strove to keep voters’ focus on the party’s ugly past. It didn’t work. Rather than cast doubt on Sinn Féin’s integrity, it allowed the republicans to reiterate their commitment to peace.
This proved crucial. A whole generation has grown up since the Good Friday Agreement—of which Sinn Féin was a signatory—not knowing the violence that defined their parent’s era.
Rather than Ireland’s restive past, they are concerned with the here-and-now – a shortage of housing, rocketing rental costs, shortcomings in healthcare, to name a few. Sinn Féin’s campaign dialled into these issues with laser-like focus, dwelling less—ironically—on the republican cause from which their party grew.
Leo Varadkar, the current prime minister and Fine Gael leader, also tried to appeal to younger voters, who—having found their electoral voice in recent marriage equality and abortion referendums—were always going to be critical. But his promises to build more houses and ease hospital overcrowding were uninspiring beside Sinn Féin’s radical left-wing agenda.
New taxes on the wealthy, a freeze in rent prices, lowering the pension age; these resonated with voters tired of austerity and the establishment’s pro-business approach. That the Irish economy is one of Europe’s fastest growing, with wages up and unemployment low, seems not to have swayed those disillusioned with Varadkar’s center-right orthodoxy.
His role in brokering last year’s Brexit withdrawal deal—which brought certainty to Irish business – also failed to catch the electorate’s imagination. Just 1% of those surveyed said Britain’s departure from the EU was important.
Perhaps, though, it was the absence of such a huge constitutional question that allowed Sinn Féin’s wholly domestic message to hit home. At the U.K. general election in December, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s comparably left-wing manifesto failed spectacularly, drowned out—most agree—by the Brexit debate.
Whereas he expected to perform well, Sinn Féin anticipated a poor showing on Saturday. Having suffered serious setbacks at European and council elections last year, the party fielded just 42 candidates for the 160-seat Irish parliament, a strategy to minimise losses.
Slimmed down as it was, their campaign wasn’t any less savvy. Reflecting their reach with young people, Sinn Féin’s social media efforts were particularly successful. On Instagram, the party commanded 46% of all election interactions, online analysis reveals. On Facebook, that figure was 60%.
But still, having run so few candidates, Sinn Féin will struggle to form a workable government. To keep both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil from power, an almighty coalition of Ireland’s smaller parties will have to be cobbled together.
Succeed at mustering this left-leaning amalgam, and history will truly have been made: Sinn Féin—a party of Irish reunification—in government at both ends of the island.