11 February 2020

Sinn Fein’s success has damaged the idea of a dynamic, tolerant Ireland


For almost four years, Irish Europhiles, from Leo Varadkar down, sneered at the British for our supposed insularity, our nationalism and our populism, because we voted for Brexit. The Republic of Ireland, we were told, was an outward-looking, economically successful democracy, while the UK was old and in thrall to its imperial past, with a political system that no longer worked.

How’s that narrative looking this week?

In Saturday’s Irish general election, Sinn Fein topped the poll, with 24.5% of first preference votes, beating Fianna Fail on 22% and Fine Gael on 21%. Thanks to the single transfer vote system, Fianna Fail won most seats, finishing with 38 when transfers were taken into account, just one ahead of Sinn Fein. Fine Gael is now the third biggest party, with 35 seats.

There will be a period of negotiations, and they could be protracted, as Irish politicians try to form a government. But there’s a high probability that Sinn Fein will be in it. Michael Martin, the leader of Fianna Fail, has not ruled out forming a coalition with Mary-Lou McDonald’s party, despite making scathing comments before the election about its involvement with “shady figures” from the IRA.

That outcome is shocking and we should not downplay how shocking it is. As veteran journalist Eoghan Harris wrote in the Irish Independent: “Sinn Fein is the only European party with an armed wing – marking us out as a rogue democracy.” The party’s success destroys some of the persistent myths about modern Ireland that were accepted so eagerly by British Remainers.

If you followed the election on social media, you probably read some withering put-downs directed at Brits who dared to venture an opinion on the Republic’s election. If you thought the result was sinister, you simply didn’t understand Ireland. The vote was about housing, health and pensions, we were told, not Brexit or an under-current of anti-Britishness.

That may be true, but, whether they were motivated by domestic issues or old-fashioned prejudice, nearly a quarter of voters in the Republic voted for a political party that has a paramilitary wing and takes direction from the army council of the IRA. If young people don’t know or care that this movement pursued a murderous campaign relatively recently, or that its members were involved repeatedly in criminality after the ceasefires, that says something relevant and horrifying about modern Ireland.

Anyone in their late thirties or early forties remembers atrocities committed by the IRA. More still will remember the organisation robbing £26.5 million from the Northern Bank just sixteen years ago. And then there were all the bloody internal feuds, the punishment beatings, a spy-ring at Stormont that caused the Assembly to collapse. Countless instances where IRA criminality has been alleged or proven, right up to the present day.

Far from showing contrition for the activities of its armed wing, Sinn Fein has celebrated and sanitised them. Its politicians continue to commemorate terrorists who were involved in some of the Troubles’ bloodiest incidents, with the attendant implication that the IRA’s 1,800 murders were necessary and justified.

To be able to set aside this past completely – to say it has no weight in comparison to domestic issues or anger at the political establishment – at best, this means a kind of moral torpor has settled on a chunk of the Republic’s electorate.

In the UK, some commentators have suggested that Sinn Fein’s success will damage Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. Their arguments might not prove to be very robust.

If the party makes it into government, it will agitate for a referendum on an all-Ireland state and urge the Republic to take a hardline stance in Brexit negotiations. But Dublin does not have the power to call a border poll in Ulster, whether Sinn Fein forms part of the administration or not. From the Good Friday Agreement, it’s clear that any decision on a referendum must be taken by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The suggestion that a border poll could form a ‘red line’ for Sinn Fein in coalition negotiations makes no sense.

More importantly, the perception that an all-Ireland state was likely relied on ‘soft unionists’ and undecided liberals showing openness to the idea after Brexit. They were enamoured of a young, Europhile, openly gay prime minister in Leo Varadkar, seeing him as a symbol of a modern, progressive country.

They are likely to be less enthused about any government shaped by Sinn Fein, with its blend of ethno-nationalism and extreme left economics. The sight of republican activists belting out pro-IRA songs at a Dublin count centre will not quicken the hearts of Northern Ireland’s liberals like celebrations over Ireland’s abortion reform referendum, or confetti at a gay marriage.

A spotlight has been thrown too on long-term problems with the Republic’s economy. The country’s headline figures are healthy, but the election highlighted serious issues with the cost of living and the availability of housing. While wages are higher in southern Ireland, disposable incomes are similar on both sides of border and Northern Ireland does not suffer the Republic’s chronic shortage of homes.

The decisive factor in this election may well have been domestic politics, but don’t believe the line that a huge vote for a virulently anti-British party doesn’t tell you something important about the Irish republic. The myth of a dynamic, tolerant state has been damaged seriously by Sinn Fein’s success.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'