Sinn Féin Tops Election, Shakes up Ireland

(CN) — Sinn Féin, long a political pariah due to its affiliation with the IRA, has shaken up Irish politics by winning the most votes in Weekend elections, breaking the century-long dominance of Ireland’s political duopoly.

Irish voters went to the polls Saturday in an election marked by anxiety and anger over the rising costs of housing and healthcare. Ireland’s economy is doing well, but living costs are rising too and have left many feeling worse off.

In a seismic shift, the left-wing nationalist Sinn Féin party for the first time beat Ireland’s long-dominant centrist parties by picking up about 24.5% of the vote with its message of taxing the wealthy, freezing rents, building affordable housing and seeking Irish unification.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with supporters at the count center in Dublin on Sunday. (AP photo/Peter Morrison)

“I think it is fair to say that this election has been historic. It is something of a revolution in the ballot box,” Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said Sunday.

Ireland’s two political mainstays — rivals Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael — got respectively 22.2% and 20.9% of the vote. The two parties have ruled Ireland since it gained independence from the United Kingdom nearly a century ago. They were on opposing sides in Ireland’s civil war, and despite being similar politically, have remained bitter rivals since.

But support for their pro-business and fiscally conservative policies has dropped since the 2008 financial crisis; both parties have been blamed for rising housing and healthcare costs. They are often derided as the Twiddledee and Twiddledum of Irish politics.

Sinn Féin benefited from voter discontent and a surge in support from young people, who are less likely to associate Sinn Féin with its past as the political wing of the IRA in the conflict in Northern Ireland. In recent years and under new leadership, Sinn Féin has managed to rebrand itself as a progressive left-wing movement led by women.

“It’s a big statement that this is no longer a two-party system,” McDonald, the Sinn Féin leader, said at a center in Dublin where votes were counted. “It’s a big statement of change.”

The election outcome leaves Irish politics heading into potentially weeks of talks over how to form a new government. If coalition talks fail, new elections likely would be needed to break the deadlock.

The problem is that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have ruled out entering a coalition with Sinn Féin due to its left-wing policies and lingering ties with Irish Republican Army supporters. Those ties were on display Sunday at the vote-counting center, when Sinn Féin supporters sang “Come Out, Ye Black and Tans,” an Irish rebel song.

Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister and leader of Fine Gael, ruled out governing with Sinn Féin. He and his party were the big losers in the election.

Varadkar, Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister, gained prominence during negotiations over Brexit and he called the election hoping to capitalize on a strong economy and his role in securing a Brexit deal seen as good for Ireland. But Brexit was not on the minds of Irish voters, with only 1% telling pollsters that Brexit was a major factor in their vote on Saturday. Varadkar did so poorly that he was beaten in his own constituency by a Sinn Féin candidate. In Ireland, more than one candidate represents constituencies, so Varadkar nonetheless returns to the parliament.

Fianna Fáil is seen as more willing to enter a coalition with Sinn Féin. Its leader, Micheál Martin, did not rule out such a coalition when he was asked by reporters.

Another possibility is that the two centrist parties could seek to govern in a coalition, but that too may prove difficult for the rivals.

For now, Sinn Féin is talking about forming a government with smaller left-wing parties, but that seems improbable because they likely will lack enough seats in parliament for a majority.

Sinn Féin’s victory thrusts the topic of Irish unification into Europe’s political discourse. Since its founding in 1905, Sinn Féin has advocated for Irish unity and an end to British rule in Ireland. During the conflict in in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles, it became a leading political force and it is today the dominant Catholic party in Northern Ireland.

Although Irish unification was hardly mentioned during the election, Sinn Féin has made Irish unification a central platform and it’s called for a referendum on the matter within five years.

There are concerns that holding an Irish unification referendum would stir up sectarian passions in Northern Ireland and rekindle violence.

Sinn Féin until recently was viewed as a fringe party in Ireland due to its affiliation with the IRA. In the 2016 Irish elections, it picked up 13.8% of the vote and won 22 seats in the Irish parliament, the Dáil. This time, Sinn Féin is projected to win 36 seats.

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(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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