Sinn Fein on the threshold: Party with old IRA ties soars in deadlocked Irish election; results due today or tomorrow

Dublin: Sinn Fein, a leftist party long ostracised from Irish politics over its ties to sectarian violence, won the popular vote and seized its largest-ever share of parliamentary seats in the country’s national elections this weekend, according to results released on Sunday.

The vote loosened a 90-year stranglehold on power by two Centre-Right parties in Ireland and put Sinn Fein on the doorstep of joining a coalition government, a remarkable rebuke to a political establishment that tried to paint it as aberrant and unelectable throughout the campaign.

Defying a reputation for extreme risk aversion, Irish voters ignored those warnings.

They gave Sinn Fein more votes than Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, in his Dublin district, though Ireland’s system of vote allocation allowed Varadkar to hold onto his parliamentary seat.

Irish voters delivered more votes to left-wing parties than they had in decades, realigning a Centre-heavy political system along class and ideological lines.

And they signalled that, more than a decade after the financial crash of 2008, the aftershocks of that event were still being felt, with voters punishing Ireland’s big party machines for adopting years of austerity and unapologetically business-friendly policies.

“This is changing the shape and mold of Irish politics,” Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Fein, told a crush of reporters at a Dublin convention centre on Sunday. “This is not a transient thing; this is just the beginning.”

The voting results were preliminary, with about one-third of the seats allocated. The final results are expected on Monday or Tuesday.

Sinn Fein used to be the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, which fought for Irish unity during the decades-long sectarian conflict known as the Troubles.

 Sinn Fein on the threshold: Party with old IRA ties soars in deadlocked Irish election; results due today or tomorrow

File image of the Custom House in Dublin. By Andy Haslam © 2020 The New York Times

But those ties have faded from memory for many younger voters. And, especially in this campaign, the party made opposition to soaring rental prices and corporate tax breaks the centerpiece of its campaign, using its long history of organising and activism to present itself as the only party in touch with people’s day-to-day grievances.

Varadkar, for his part, was celebrated abroad for his success in negotiating a Brexit deal with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain that averted some of the most painful fallout of Britain’s split with the European Union. But at home he was facing growing anger over mounting healthcare costs and a housing shortage that has driven up rents and forced some young people to consider leaving the country.

The results were sobering for the duopoly that has long controlled Irish politics: Fine Gael, Varadkar’s Centre-Right party, and Fianna Fail, the Centre-Right Opposition party. They have been trading power for decades.

Seat projections suggested that Fianna Fail was on track to win about 45 seats in the 160-seat Parliament, followed by Sinn Fein with 37 seats and Fine Gael with 36 seats. A number of smaller left-wing parties and Independent lawmakers also won seats.

The results almost certainly would have been worse for the Centre-Right parties had Sinn Fein, recovering from a poor showing in local elections last year and cautious about its prospects, not chosen to put forward only 42 candidates.

Control of Parliament will most likely be resolved in coalition negotiations over the coming weeks.

Both Centre-Right parties had ruled out an alliance with Sinn Fein during the campaign, with Varadkar going so far as to say that Sinn Fein was “not a normal party.” But analysts said the prospect of the two big parties joining forces themselves was remote, given the fear that anything less than a stellar run in power might tee up Sinn Fein for an even stronger showing in next election.

That appears to leave a coalition between Sinn Fein and one of the Centre-Right parties as a plausible way out of the stalemate.

Analysts believe Fianna Fail is the more likely candidate, given its desperation to return to power and its control of a larger share of parliamentary seats. But they warned that any agreement was far from sealed and the result of negotiations difficult to predict.

Sinn Fein also said it would try to form a coalition with other left-wing parties, though not all of them see eye to eye, either. A second election also remains a possibility.

Analysts said the conditions that fueled Sinn Fein’s rise mirrored those that have driven support in Britain for Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-left Labour Party leader, and in the United States for Democratic presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders. Chief among those conditions are young people suffering from low pay and skyrocketing rents, and widespread anger at tax breaks and gentrification.

But Sinn Fein’s anti-establishment campaign in Ireland is even more potent, untarnished as it is by any time in power.

“What this says, I think, is that in the right circumstances, the Left can still make a very popular appeal,” said Michael Marsh, a professor at Trinity College Dublin. “But they’re able to do it in Ireland because the Left has never been in power. In most of Europe, it has.”

Huge challenges lay ahead if Sinn Fein joins a coalition government.

The party made a number of bold promises during its campaign, including a vow to build 100,000 homes, a task that analysts believe will be complicated by the need to recruit more builders for Ireland’s growing construction industry.

Still, for voters disgusted by decades of stagnation in Irish politics, seeing anyone but the same old faces at the top of the polls was welcome.

At the Lark Inn, a pub in a part of central Dublin where Sinn Fein has long been popular, John Flood, 75, a retired interior decorator, sat at the bar as the television showed Ireland’s two main parties losing one seat after another.

Flood said homelessness was the most important problem facing the next government, a problem he said past governments had done little to solve.

“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” Flood said, “but their policies all stay the same.”

Benjamin Mueller c.2020 The New York Times Company

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Updated Date: Feb 10, 2020 08:37:09 IST