Sinn Féin’s Day Is Coming

Last Saturday's Irish election was a historic breakthrough for Sinn Féin, the most-voted party for the first time. An organizer for the party writes how austerity drove a working-class backlash — and how Sinn Féin plans to turn voter revolt into real change.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with her supporters after being elected on February 9, 2020 in Dublin, Ireland. (Charles McQuillan / Getty Images).

Vladimir Lenin once said, “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Revolutionary changes can occur in unexpected ways, and that is what happened in the Irish general election last Saturday as Sinn Féin was returned as the most popular party in the country. The election result marks the first time in the history of the state that a left-wing party has a chance of leading a government. All previous governments have been led by one of the center-right Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties, both of which have their roots in opposing sides of Ireland’s civil war of 1922–23.

The political and media establishment were taken by surprise at the Sinn Féin surge, especially given the party’s poor performance in last May’s local and European elections when we lost half of our councillors and two of our four MEPs. When he called the snap general election, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was confident that he would be leading the next government with a diminished Sinn Féin opposition. However, once the election began, Sinn Féin’s fortunes reversed. Formidable media performers such as Mary Lou McDonald, finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty, and housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin articulated simple and recurring messages that resonated with working-class people. The party’s platform focused on building a hundred thousand public homes, enforcing rent controls, introducing free health care, and reducing the pension age to sixty-five. As the election campaign went on, we rose in a succession of polls, which boosted the morale of our support base and ultimately created the belief among a significant section of the population that Sinn Féin was a credible alternative government in waiting.

The party’s election success comes on the back of a decade of harsh austerity, shocking levels of child homelessness amid another construction boom, and a public health system that is all but crumbling. Despite Fine Gael’s claims of a recovery and ongoing economic growth, the lived reality for most people is completely different. Disposable incomes have been decimated by extortionate rents and the public health system is in such a bad state that the Irish Hospital Consultants Association called on the government to declare a national emergency. The refusal of successive right-wing governments to invest in public transport has seen the quality of life for many people deteriorate as a result of soul-destroying commutes that leave little time for family and social life.

Against this backdrop, Fine Gael’s attempts to make their handling of Brexit an election issue failed miserably. Their warnings about economic catastrophe in the event of Brexit found no resonance among people who faced the reality of a soaring cost-of-living crisis every day. Their reality under Fine Gael was already a broken economy that didn’t meet the most basic needs for affordable housing, decent health care, and sustainable employment — let alone any greater aspirations. Indeed, in an RTÉ election exit poll, 63 percent of people said they had not experienced any benefit from the improvement in the economy in recent years.

Sinn Féin successfully tapped into the growing resentment that this caused, and we gave people hope for a better society. With an ambitious aim for a radical form of social democracy, Sinn Féin’s election manifesto — titled “Giving Workers and Families a Break” — shared significant similarities with the one Jeremy Corbyn and Labour ran on in 2017. It committed the party to building an Irish NHS, introducing a minister for labor affairs who would be responsible for enhancing workers’ rights, and had a fully costed plan to embark on the biggest house-building program in Irish history.

Media Smear Campaign

Once it became clear that Sinn Féin could win the election, the mainstream media went into overdrive in an attempt to smear the party and its leader with insinuation and innuendo. First, they tried to paint the party’s Ard Comhairle (National Executive) as a shadowy group controlled by IRA “godfathers” in West Belfast. When this lie failed to resonate, they moved on to opportunistically using the victims of the recent conflict in the north of Ireland in a bid to stem the rise of our party. But this time, people saw through it. They saw the cynicism of politicians and journalists who usually have nothing to say about transport, health care, education, housing, or any other issue in the north of Ireland, but are the first to drag up the memories of victims of the thirty-year conflict for their own political ends. Power protects itself in horrendous and insidious ways.

Whereas in previous elections, Sinn Féin had been damaged by media attacks on its IRA past, this time it seemed to have the opposite result. Outrage about the IRA looked strange when espoused by a government that wanted to commemorate the notorious “Black and Tans” just months earlier. This group was responsible for murder, torture, and the burning of a number of Irish towns and cities. If their actions could be commemorated, why was Fine Gael so offended by the legacy of the Troubles? To the Irish public, this came across as dishonest. By contrast, we in Sinn Féin have never hidden who we are or what our political tradition is. We have never made a secret of our belief that the IRA’s struggle from 1969 to 1997 was a legitimate one and our roots in the movement for Irish national liberation are a source of pride for our activists.

But this wasn’t even the high point of the media smear campaign. RTÉ and Virgin Media refused to allow Mary Lou McDonald to take part in the leaders’ debate on the grounds that only those who could become Taoiseach could take part. The initial leaders’ debate between Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin was widely ridiculed online, given the two parties’ nearly identical political platforms. Not only did it make a laughing stock of the pretense that there is any substantial difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, it severely undermined the credibility of the media outlets which facilitated the non-debate. The popular response was that it was not up to the media to decide who would become Taoiseach but the electorate. Their attempt to limit the choice between Varadkar and Martin only sowed further distrust of the media, and their later smears against us weren’t seen as credible by many voters.

The Two-Party System

Britain’s colonization of Ireland, and the later partition of our country in 1922, has frustrated the development of Irish politics, and up to now a clear left-right divide failed to materialize. The founding principles of our major political parties were based on their respective positions on the national question.

Ireland’s revolution of 1916–1922 was followed by a counterrevolution led by the conservative and middle-class sections of the national liberation movement that supported the treaty with Britain. This faction became Cumann na nGaedheal, the forerunner of the modern Fine Gael party. This counterrevolution consigned women, who had played a significant role in the revolution, to the margins of society and enshrined a hard-right economic program into the fabric of the new state. The other main center-right party, Fianna Fáil, has its origins in the anti-treaty side of the civil war. A cross-class alliance with deeply conservative positions on social issues, Fianna Fáil was first elected to government in 1932 and helped to enshrine the Catholic Church as a dominant power in Irish society.

Until Saturday, these two center-right parties alternated power between themselves. Sinn Féin has ended this domination and opened up the possibility of a clear left-right divide for the first time. The ramification of this is completely unknown. Will the two conservative parties remain as separate entities in the long term? Will a declining Labour Party and the Social Democrats, who differ on very little, amalgamate? What will be their purpose when they are overshadowed by a larger and more ambitious social-democratic party in the form of Sinn Féin?

Questions will also be raised of the various Trotskyist parties that occupy seats in the Dáil. It appears they have little to grow beyond their current strength of five seats. Indeed, their very survival in this election is down primarily to Sinn Féin transfers. As in many other countries, factional sectarianism is a perennial feature of Irish Trotskyism. In seven constituencies across the country, candidates from Solidarity and People Before Profit — both of which are Trotskyist parties — ran candidates against each other, splitting the far-left vote. This was most absurdly displayed in the Dublin Bay North constituency, where no less than three Trotskyists ran against each other. Had they agreed a single candidate, they would probably have gained a seat in place of Fianna Fáil’s Seán Haughey. Hopefully, this will be the last election in which we witness such political immaturity.

Honest questions also need to be asked of the various left-wing independents. Ireland is unique in Europe for having a significant number of independent politicians in our national parliament due to the clientelist system that exists in the country, and it is a shame that some socialists have chosen to remain independent rather than form collectives. One example of this is Independents 4 Change, a slate of left-wing independents. The most high-profile of this group were MEPs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace. Formerly TDs in Fingal and Wexford, the pair went on a solo run and ran in the European elections last May. Daly’s decision to stand saw Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan, an eco-socialist on the left of the party, lose her seat due to the fracture of the left vote in Dublin.

Daly was replaced in the Dáil by the moderate Green and Labour parties, and Wallace was replaced by Fianna Fáil. It was clear that limited strategic thinking went into their decision and its impact on the wider Irish left. Although some Independents 4 Change TDs have made efforts at forming new parties, they haven’t been successful — and there is much to criticize about the tradition of left-wing independents. Socialism relies upon a collective politics to challenge capital, one which builds broader coalitions and commits to organizational discipline. It is a struggle which can’t be undertaken alone. This is the dead end of “independent” politics.

Another outcome of this election is the further exposure of the conservative nature of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a party based in the north of Ireland that is sometimes described as progressive. In reality, the party’s record on issues like abortion in the north of Ireland has been clearly right-wing for some time. And when it came to elections in the south of Ireland, the SDLP chose to side with Fianna Fáil and even Fine Gael in MP Claire Hanna’s case, instead of with Sinn Féin’s ambitious and progressive campaign to introduce universal free health care and enhanced trade union rights. This evidences the degree to which the SDLP is lacking in political principles, certainly of the kind that might be described as of the social-democratic or labor traditions.

Irish Unity

Sinn Féin’s ultimate aim is the creation of a thirty-two-county socialist republic, so it is no surprise that Irish unity will be at the core of any discussions on government formation. Sinn Féin have promised to produce a white paper on reunification and secure a referendum on the question.

From a left-wing perspective, one significant effect of Sinn Féin’s electoral success will be the opportunity for a left-republican narrative to become hegemonic in the Irish unity debate, rather than the liberal pro-EU one that has dominated in the years following Brexit. Sinn Féin will aim to popularize the debate on unity, and the Left need to be involved in order to ensure that the discussion does not merely focus on what it would mean for big business and liberal unionism.

It is increasingly obvious that a mandate exists for a referendum on Irish unity, but pressure needs to be applied on the British government to allow one. The Left of the British Labour Party have a particular responsibility to show solidarity with Ireland and force Irish unity onto the agenda. Given the Labour Party’s record in supporting internment and the criminalization of Irish political prisoners, failing to prevent effective apartheid and the brutal repression of civil rights marches in the 1960s, and even introducing troops to Northern Ireland (a move vociferously backed by Tribune) — it is the least that should be expected in terms of solidarity.

Next Steps and Challenges

The exact formation of the next Irish government is unknown. There seems to be a concerted effort in the Irish establishment to keep Sinn Féin out of the halls of power, and an arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is highly plausible.

Whether Sinn Féin is in government or in opposition in the coming weeks, we need to remember that left-republican politics is best practiced in communities, workplaces, and on the streets rather than in parliamentary chambers. Much of the vote that Sinn Féin secured at the weekend is borrowed, and the party should not be taking that support for granted. We will consolidate this support by organizing and campaigning with ordinary people in their communities.

We face the same challenges any serious left-wing force will face: a hostile media that has no problem distorting the truth in order to protect power; the higher echelons of a civil service that is inherently right-wing and wedded to free-market fundamentalism; and a business class that is full-square behind Ireland’s tax haven economic model. We cannot challenge these powers on our own, and we need to build a mass movement to achieve our aims.

One of the greatest achievements of Irish republicanism to date is our role in preventing the rise of a well-organized far right in Ireland. Sinn Féin, in particular, have channeled discontented working-class nationalism in a progressive and anti-imperialist direction, and have denied fascists the political ground on which they can grow in Ireland. In the most recent election, far-right parties received less than one percent of the vote.

With this achievement comes an even greater responsibility and determination that we will not let people down when (not if) we enter government. Sinn Féin will deliver on our promises. We will build a hundred thousand homes. We will freeze rents. We will build a National Health Service. We will take on the tax dodgers and the right-wing media, famously referred to by the great James Connolly as “the hired liars of the enemy.”

Sinn Féin’s success on the back of an ambitious and transformative manifesto should be a beacon of hope for a Left on retreat around the world, particularly in Europe. We do not need to triangulate or concede ground to the center and the Right. We can win on our own terms and with the merits of our own left politics.

Regardless if Sinn Féin is in government, in opposition, or indeed facing into another general election, our central aim is to empower workers and communities to fight for a better, fairer, and united socialist Ireland. To paraphrase the old republican slogan: our day is coming.