Ireland: Sinn Fein surges as voters reject status quo
“A seismic election in Ireland has reshaped the traditional electoral landscape,” said Naomi O’Leary in Politico.eu. The left-wing nationalist party Sinn Fein won the popular vote last week, a massive blow to Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, the center-right parties that have dominated Irish politics since the country won independence from Britain nearly a century ago. Once the political wing of the terrorist Irish Republican Army, Sinn Fein took 24.5 percent of the first-preference vote in Ireland’s complicated, rank-your-top-choices system. Had it fielded more than 42 candidates for the 160-seat parliament, it might have done even better; as it was, it took 37 seats, just behind Fianna Fail with 38 and ahead of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael with 35. Sinn Fein’s cheerful new leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has reinvigorated the party, long led by alleged former IRA commander Gerry Adams. McDonald says she wants to form a coalition with the Greens and other leftist independent parties. But a more likely outcome is that Sinn Fein will be junior partner in a coalition with Fianna Fail, because Fine Gael has ruled out partnering with the nationalists.
Sinn Fein was once seen as “radioactive” because of its link to the IRA, said Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times (Ireland). But younger voters who grew up after the 1998 peace deal don’t make that connection, and they threw their support behind the party. These voters hunger for real change. That’s partly because Fine Gael has led a minority government that mustered little enthusiasm, but mostly because Ireland’s booming economy has failed to lift living conditions for ordinary people. We’re suffering a homeless crisis caused by a shortage of housing, and health-care costs are rocketing. Sinn Fein promised to build 100,000 affordable homes if elected, so the youth were “willing to take risks with their votes.”
Then they need to be educated on the IRA’s bloody history, said Eoghan Harris in the Sunday Independent (Ireland). The terrorist outfit killed more than 1,700 people—soldiers, police, politicians, innocent civilians—during its three-decade war against British rule in Northern Ireland. And the killings have continued: In 2007, 21-year-old Paul Quinn was brutally beaten to death after crossing members of an IRA splinter group, and Sinn Fein implied he had it coming. For all its new branding, the party is still a “proto-fascist” outfit that “peddles a heroic false narrative about its squalid terrorist past to seduce a younger generation.”
But voters are looking to the future, said David McWilliams in the Financial Times (U.K.). “Despite wanting a united Ireland and calling for a referendum in Northern Ireland on reunification,” Sinn Fein is not a party of “narrow-gauge nationalism” and anti-liberalism. It supports gay marriage and abortion rights, the European Union and immigration. One in six Irish residents are foreign-born, and Sinn Fein embraces multiculturalism. “We live in a New Ireland now,” and the past is “another country.” ■