Sinn Fein Still Has a Lot of Ground to Cover

Photo source: Foreign Policy
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

There is a possibility that Sinn Fein, a political wing of an armed organisation, might become a party to the government in a European Union member state in the future, despite the fact the polls show them popular in only more than a quarter of the Irish public. It calls for a united Ireland and is more than an anti-establishment populist front. The party claims to reimagine itself as having an alternative vision for Irish people on both sides of the border.

The people’s mood, despite its rise, is something different. It runs contrary to their unification and nationalist agenda, as per opinion polls done by the University of Liverpool Institute of Irish Studies, and Times Survey.

These facts aren’t news for Irish nationalists, either. They, for over a century, have predicted the demise of the absorption of Northern Ireland into the Republic. Unionists are aware of this fact, and it gives them a chance to secure Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom even further. In a blog on, Kevin Meagher analysed the priorities for Sinn Fein, and commented: ‘Either Sinn Fein ends up as a coalition partner in government and actively promotes Irish unity, or it influences the political weather as the main opposition party.’

The gradual popularity, however, is making many analysts believe that Sinn Fein belongs to the same cadre of parties in Europe that became successful after their vitriolic protest movements. It included the Five Star Movement in Italy and Servant of the People in Ukraine.

The party, historically, had ties with Irish Republican Provos, and it had marred many Irish voters in the late 20th century. Although the current party framing of a ‘United Ireland’ stands as a goal by political means rather than violence, one cannot deny Sinn Féin’s past associations with IRA extremism.

It was in February 2018, after more than thirty-four years at its helm, Irish politician Gerry Adams stepped down as the leader of Sinn Féin. In his place rose Mary Lou McDonald, who outlined her vision for the party in her first address, committing to ‘innovative and modern ways of advancing Irish politics.’

Despite this, the rebranding of Sinn Fein has helped their nationalist messaging which carefully directs the language to foment a nationalism of unity over divisions, mainly the Catholic and Protestant fuss. McDonald’s caucus campaigned on a United Ireland, based on the preservation of Irish culture, in terms of support for the colonised Irish Gaelic language. In doing so, the party appealed not only to the struggling white working-class voters but even the working-class immigrants, who were also white. This fact can be vouchsafed by their good electoral performance in their respective territories.

To put brakes on their rise in the future, the other two parties namely Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are trying to make a grand coalition, and this development is trying to push Sinn Fein on the centre-right in orientation, which traditionally adheres to left-wing nationalism. If this happens, it will give, some dissenting voices within the Fianna Fail, a hope of tie-up with Sinn Fein, as they see it as a good fit. The scenario, nevertheless, has also allowed a perfect left-right political orientation to emerge in Irish politics currently.

Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, there has been a rise in dissident republican activity in Northern Ireland, and the prospect of a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland has been a major contributor to the increase of recruits to the IRA as well. It is something alarming to Irish unionism with Britain. 

In its history, Sinn Fein splintered into several groups, most of whom claimed the old revolutionary party’s title and legacy. However, it was the faction led by Gerry Adams, which toed the line between idealism and pragmatism. It would ultimately see success, as the party sat its first member of the southern Irish legislature in 1997, and quickly became the largest pro-reunification party in Northern Ireland, leading the call to reunite with the Republic of Ireland in the Northern Irish assembly.

The present vote share for Sinn Fein is also showing that it is going mainstream, much attributed to its popular leader, McDonalds, who is seen as a poised, fluent Dubliner, having a classless appeal among its supporters. The party is also way ahead of other political parties, in terms of social media campaigning. The murder of Paul Quinn in 2007, alleged by its IRA supporters didn’t hinder its growing popularity. However, most of the population in Ireland is under 25, and memories of The Troubles remain secondary to them. It is something that will give a hard time to Sinn Fein to muster its nationalist electoral growth in the future.

As Sinn Fein has gone mainstream, and channels all its energy, effort, politics, and social capital mostly on united Ireland, it may end up losing its vote share. Aidan Regan, associate professor at University College Dublin’s school of politics, said in a podcast that Sinn Fein immediately should broaden its political objectives that include multiple issues plaguing the lives of common people and industry. Some of the things Sinn Fein tried to address are the collapsing housing market and tax reform. For a start, it had already called to build a hundred thousand homes, announced a three-year rent freeze, and greater transparency in tax, especially in the case of multinationals.



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