- Interview by
- Ronan Burtenshaw
As Europe was ravaged by austerity policies in the past decade, numerous left-wing insurgencies emerged to challenge for government: Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, La France Insoumise, and, from 2015 to 2019, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Each came from outside the traditional center-left and learned, to some degree, from the others. They offered moments of hope for the international left in a time of deep social crisis.
By 2020, it seemed those moments had passed. The much-vaunted “new” parties and movements of Europe’s post-2008 landscape had been defeated, and the forces of the status quo had returned with a vengeance. But in the Irish general election, a far older movement made a breakthrough on more or less the same terms. Sinn Féin, which before the crash had been a party of 6–7 percent, rose to a historic 24.5 percent — and, in the process, defeated the two right-wing parties that had dominated Irish politics since the foundation of the southern state.
North of the border, Sinn Féin had been growing steadily. In 2003, it eclipsed the Social Democratic and Labour Party as the leading nationalist party, and by 2007, Martin McGuinness was elected deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. But its progress in the south was slower. It wasn’t until 2014’s European election, around the time of the mass movement against water charges, that it threatened leading parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for the first time. This cemented its position as the leading party of the Left and the fight against austerity in the southern Irish state.
In 2018, the party appointed a new leader, Mary Lou McDonald, replacing veteran republican Gerry Adams. While Sinn Féin briefly faltered in her first European elections — leading to many predictions of its demise — the 2020 general election that followed has fundamentally changed the Irish political landscape. While the party was locked out of government by a right-wing coalition, Sinn Féin has led in every poll since and currently sits at a scarcely believable 35 percent to Fine Gael’s 21 percent and Fianna Fáil’s 16 percent.
Added to this, the party secured twenty-seven seats in May’s assembly elections, making it the largest party in the north for the first time in its history — although Unionist obstructionism has prevented it from assuming this role in practice. With its longtime ambition of government north and south in Ireland firmly within view, Ronan Burtenshaw sat down with Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald to discuss what this means for the party, the country, and left-wing politics more broadly.
It would have been unthinkable for most of my lifetime for Sinn Féin to be leading in the polls in the south of Ireland. Politics has been dominated by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for the entire history of the state. How has this change come about?
It has been an extraordinary journey. Not just in the south, but right across the island. You’re right to say few could have imagined it. I suppose it’s like every big development, every success in political life, it looks sudden. But the truth is Sinn Féin has been toiling away building capacity, strength, running in elections, winning, losing, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but all the time learning. Our activists as well as our elected representatives.
It’s interesting when I look at the faces that we have here in the Dáil, but also colleagues up north in the assembly and the executive, lots of us have been active together for all of our political lifetime. We were the young cubs running for election when the party didn’t have a real prospect of getting elected, but we invested politically and personally. We are lucky to have a lot of talent that’s just crystallizing at this moment. We’ve had generations before us, like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, a golden generation of leaders, but now we have a new generation that’s just come of age.
Circumstances have contributed too. The bursting of the property bubble a decade ago was hugely traumatic and transformative in terms of people’s political thinking. Then you had Brexit, Boris Johnson, belligerent Toryism, that always impacts on the Irish political scene. None of that was any great surprise, I suppose, but it has been quite something. Just bear in mind, we’re certainly not finished yet. I’m conscious that you earn your political stripes, political progress, trust, and momentum. It sometimes happens spontaneously because of extraneous factors, but the truth, for the most part, is that progress is built, assiduously, laboriously, consistently. We’ve built this far, and we need to consolidate the progress that we’ve made nationally, north and south. We haven’t hit any ceilings yet.
What distinguishes us from the other political parties — Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, and so on — is that we have a big political project. All of this is about something; it’s not simply so that we can be elected members of the Dáil, it’s certainly not about building careers or platforms for people. Although ambition is a good thing; you want your people to be the best that they can, to succeed to the best of their abilities. But Sinn Féin’s project is about resolving a generations-long conflict. It’s about ridding Ireland of those tail ends of a colonial experience that was absolutely devastating, as you well know. We’ve had experiences of colonization, occupation, conflict, partition, and now a peace process and a settlement that will be twenty-five years old this year.
They say there is nothing more powerful than an idea that comes of age. I think our ideas about social justice, democracy, fairness, public goods and public services, the politics of equality are coming of age in this country. It’s an exciting time to be an activist. In my view, there’s never been a more important time to be an activist — wherever you live. Ireland is changing and has changed, but the world is changing too. It will change in ways that we have yet to imagine. It is important to be involved. At no stage should anybody fool themselves into thinking that success comes in a white puff of smoke, or that progress is something to be watched at a distance, or for others to do. This is now everybody’s business.
When I was back home during the last election, two things really stood out: Sinn Féin’s approach to dealing with the housing crisis and commitment to building a National Health Service in the south of Ireland. These things came up time and again when I asked people who were voting Sinn Féin for the first time. Why do you think your party’s approach to those two issues had such a transformative impact?
You’re right, but I’d add to that list the issue around the pension age. It is any workers’ right to retire with a decent pension at the age of sixty-five. We fought for that, and it really struck a chord, not just with older people, but with many young workers who function now in the gig economy. They face the prospect of insecure work for their entire working lives in some cases. For many people, it could mean working on and on, sixty-six, sixty-seven, sixty-eight, and beyond, before having any entitlement to a pension payment. It cuts to the core of the social contract between the government and the people.
The same was true with housing. There was a recent report from the ESRI [the Economic and Social Research Institute], one of the big think tanks here, as you know, and its findings were damning. It sets out very plainly that we now have a young generation locked out of any real prospect of home ownership, or even affordability in terms of rent. So what are those people supposed to do? What is the future? Projecting forward, they were forecasting that same generation would still be in an insecure state as they come of pension age. It’s a very depressing scenario. For so many people, the notion of having secure shelter is just beyond their reach. You’re right; that was, I would say, the core issue in the last election.
Those that went on to form the government to keep us out, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, said that they had heard the people. They claimed that they accepted the housing had to be sorted. But I have to tell you, we are two years on, and far from anything getting sorted, the situation is worse. We’ve got record levels of homelessness. It’s not just individuals either, as it once was; it’s families with children. There is no sign, despite all the rhetoric, of affordability in terms of housing, much less any delivery in social housing stock. The right to a home is, in my view, a democratic right. It’s not a luxury. You’re not looking for the world by saying that you deserve a home. Having that right vindicated is central to the exercise of all other rights that we enjoy as citizens. Education, employment, relationships, family structures, all of those things rely to some degree on shelter.
We have a crisis, and it’s not something that’s limited to the poor, the marginalized, or the disadvantaged, although they’re feeling it most acutely. This is something that is reaching every layer of society. We are still dealing with a government that either cannot, or will not, own up to the fact that they have gotten it wrong, not just now but for a decade and more. The state retreated and left the provision of shelter and housing to the private developers. We see the consequences of that now, but they cannot fess up and say, “That was wrong.”
I agree with you on that, but it does raise a question. Sinn Féin’s agenda is bold on housing — doubling capital investment in social housing, a rent freeze, ending tax breaks for these big investment funds that are hoovering up properties. But the Irish housing sector has been dominated by private interests for decades. The developer lobby is not going to go away. How will you implement your program? And will you be able to do it if, for instance, you require a coalition government?
Failure is not an option. There are some things in life that have to be done. Like if you are raising a family, you have to feed the kids, keep the lights on, you have to keep people warm. For us, there isn’t a question around “What if we can’t?”; the imperative is to do it. That’s a pressure on us because even with the right agenda, and the right policy direction, and the right priorities, and the right people in the right places at the right times, this is still a very big challenge. It is a crisis a generation or two in the making.
There’s no quick solution, but it has to be done. We need to be prepared for the opportunity of government. The front-bench team here in Dublin have essentially two tasks. One is to hold the government to account, keep their feet to the fire on the cost of living. And we’ve moved them in recent weeks on things like a back-to-school provision for families. We haven’t got them the whole way, but we have pushed them to make initial moves.
Then, running alongside that, is preparation for government. Eoin Ó Broin is our housing spokesperson. He is engaging with the people and organizations we will need to make a difference in the housing sector. When we enter government, there are certain things that you could do fairly quickly. One of the things that we’ve been raising, for example, is rent. We haven’t had a proper rent freeze. They introduced what they called “rent pressure zones,” but they aren’t real freezes, and they don’t work. We have a proposal to give back, by means of a refundable tax credit, a month’s rent into tenants’ pockets and to freeze rents for a three-year period.
There’s some argument from those who oppose our agenda that we can’t do it. They say it’s unconstitutional. But our legal advice is to the contrary, that you can do it as an emergency intervention. So with measures like that, which are emergencies, you move in, you stabilize and support people. That can be done quickly, but the rest is going to be very challenging. But not only do I believe that we can change Ireland, I believe that we will. It has to be done. I look around at what [Fianna Fáil minister for housing] Darragh O’Brien and his colleagues in government are saying, and they’re all culpable in this. They’re all defending the indefensible. Build to rent, buy to rent, these are not the answer. Selling more and more properties to big investment funds, that’s not the answer.
The right approach is investment in public housing on public land; it is a mix of affordable housing for purchase, for families that wish to, affordable rents, and then social housing. We need to reconfigure in our mind’s eye in Ireland what social housing means. We’ve got a strange and almost discriminatory view, as you know, that social housing is only for a tiny minority of people who are disadvantaged or deprived. In other countries, people from all sorts of backgrounds access and live in quality publicly owned housing. So you asked me, can it be done? It has to be done, Ronan. It’s as simple as that.
On the question of changing Ireland, you recently said that you thought there was a prospect of a unity referendum within ten years. How do you see the path from here to there? Because sitting in London, it looks like the role of the secretary of state will be significant — and I can’t see an obvious way to overcome the fact that under the Good Friday Agreement they, in effect, set the conditions that must be achieved before a referendum could take place.
The first thing to say is that the right to a referendum is established as a matter of law. We’re not petitioning anyone to grant us this opportunity out of the goodness of their heart. We have a right to self-determination under international law, and we have an agreed mechanism in the Good Friday Agreement set down almost twenty-five years ago. But you’re right — the issue looks to be, how, in the secretary of state’s view, would a triggering point be reached? I have raised it in my time as leader of Sinn Féin with any number of prime ministers and secretaries of state, I’ve lost count of the number of them, and we’ve never gotten a straight answer.
The truth is though, the secretary of state won’t really make this call. It will be made by whoever is residing at Number 10. The best way to encourage the thought process and the call for a referendum is to have a government in Dublin that is applying pressure and advancing the case. So I’m not going to speculate as to what those trigger points might be. But I will say this, it’s very clear that Boris Johnson’s government — far from having a positive impact on relations — was wholly negative. His government actually attacked the Good Friday Agreement. Parties walked away from north-south institutions, walked away from the executive, attacked the protocol, all with the assistance of Boris Johnson. The legacy legislation that they moved through the Parliament was clearly not Article Two compliant; it was clearly in breach of international law. They attacked the foundations, in fact, of the Good Friday Agreement.
So I’m not naive at all about the prospects. We are just going to have to navigate those woods. What that means is there has to be a level of initiative and energy from Dublin. Not in a way that’s confrontational or divisive, but to create the space by means of something like a citizens’ assembly where the question of reunification can be discussed and developed. It also must include those from a unionist perspective, for whom Irish unity would not be their first choice. There should be unionist farmers, haulers, businesspeople, community activists, trade unionists, and others; they should be part of the conversation around what kind of Ireland we want in ten years’ time, in twenty years’ time.
The conversation shouldn’t start from a position of negativity, it should start from a position of opportunity. I can see it happening already, ever since the last election in the north. My colleagues and I have been struck by the number of people who approach us randomly to say, look, it wouldn’t be my first choice, I come from a different political viewpoint, different cultural viewpoint, but let’s talk about it. What about my pension? What about the currency? What about investment opportunities? That is a big difference.
But how much of that change will reunification bring? Will it be the stitching together of two, in their own way, quite broken states with deep social problems? North and south, there are huge proportions of the population without what you describe as basic rights, to a decent job, to housing, to health care. How can you convince people that what we are talking about here is a fundamentally different society, the new republic that progressives have spoken about for so long?
You’re absolutely right. The last thing I would want is to stitch those two reactionary, dysfunctional entities together. I mean, looking back now, on the centenary of the civil war, it’s remarkable how accurate James Connolly was when he predicted that partition would lead to “a carnival of reaction.” North of the border we ended up with a single-party state, a Protestant parliament for Protestant people, and decades of oppression. But as you have written about, the oppression didn’t only happen north of the border. For too many, let’s say it out loud, Home Rule meant Rome Rule, and women and the poor in particular suffered the consequences of that. The last thing that we want is to repeat these mistakes.
I think we already have a model for these big national conversations. I’m going to cite two examples, marriage equality and the issue of women’s reproductive rights. They were very sensitive, tricky terrain in Ireland. And yet that conversation about the rights of our LGBT community, marriage rights, women’s rights, took the country forward. So we can do this, but we need the structure and a government to take the initiative. Dublin is duty-bound to do this, to plan ahead, to have the wider horizon and the bigger vision. People are up for that.
I will argue against just stitching together these two states, and I will do everything I can as a political leader and as an activist to ensure that is not the outcome. A new Ireland with all that it brings and a true republic, that’s where we need to get. The next decade will be a very exciting time in political life here. Those questions will be put, and any political leader who thinks that there is anything to be gained by burying their head in the sand and pretending the change isn’t happening will ultimately fail.