Blog post

The Sinn Féin surge and the future of the Irish left

After three-and-a-half weeks of fierce campaigning, Ireland goes to the polls today. Belfast based journalist Luke Butterly looks at what it’s all about, and what might come next

Luke Butterly 8 February 2020

The Sinn Féin surge and the future of the Irish left

One of the biggest upsets current Irish elections so far is the ‘Sinn Féin surge’. As Ireland goes to the polls today, the left-wing party are currently in the top position, with around 25% of voters saying they intended to vote for the party. If these predictions bear out, the party may stand a chance at forming a left coalition government - a first in the nation's history.

How did we get here?

Since independence, two centre-right parties have dominated Irish politics. Coming from opposing sides in the civil war, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have taken turns running the country for the past century.

While coalition governments have been necessary for the past three decades, the last election in 2016 saw for the first time both of the main parties get less than 50% of the vote combined. Following this, the two parties entered into a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement. This ended, for many, any illusions that they offered alternatives to each other.

Fine Gael, the current ruling party, entered into this current election seeking to present themselves as best placed to ensure ‘financial stability’ and a smooth handling of Brexit. Brexit is important to people - in addition to wanting to avoid a ‘hard border’ on the island, Britain is one of Ireland’s biggest trading partners - and a majority of people feel that the government handled the situation well.

However, when it comes to this election over 70% of voters said that health and housing were the most important issues to them. Brexit was only the most important for 3% of voters, trailing behind both the economy and climate change.

Fine Gael, headed by the current Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, is widely seen as having a very poor legacy. The housing crisis and spiraling homelessness has come to define modern Ireland. Increasing rents, especially in cities like Dublin, have made the country unaffordable and many have emigrated. Similarly, health care - which is a mix of public and private - is a concern for many votes. Numbers on hospital waiting lists in Ireland for over a year eight times higher than in England, despite England’s population being far greater.

Indeed these two issues are voters' most important concerns across age, income, and party loyalty.

Thus, after nine years in government, people feel that they have not done hardly enough to tackle the housing and health crisis, and improving living standards the worst off. Fianna Fáil, on the other hand, are remembered for the bank bailout which plunged the country into debt and the devastating effects resulting austerity are still being felt by many communities.

Traditional third party, the Irish Labour party, is also dealing with the post-crash legacy. Labour, which normally hovers around 10% of the vote, was the main third party for decades. Their last coalition government with Fianna Fáil, which saw billions of bank debt to become ‘nationalised’, caused them to suffer badly: in the next election, they lost 30 of their 37 seats and put them in fourth place.

Into the vacuum has stepped Sinn Féin, who since 2016 have moved into the space vacated by Labour as the largest left party. While a major political force in the North of Ireland, where are they in a power-sharing agreement with the DUP, the party only became a significant player in Dail Eireann from 2011 onwards.

Their proposed programme, including increased government spending, tax hikes on big business, the wealthy, and multinationals, building 100,000 homes over five years and lowering the pension age, has proved popular.

Yet the party is often presented by many in the media and political class as beyond the pale. Sinn Féin’s ‘exclusion from power is justified’ ran an opinion piece by the former political editor of the paper of record.

Alternatively presented as beholden to the IRA, or ‘red’ due to their economic policies. In a telling moment, Leo Varadkar likened their social democratic-style economic proposals to those of east Germany and Venezuela. And now, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have ruled out going into coalition with Sinn Féin.

Others, including the DUP no less, point out the hypocrisy of these parties saying Sinn Féin should be not be in government in the south, when those same parties spent the last three years pressuring Sinn Féin to go into government in the North.

From only one seat in 1997, Sinn Féin now look in a position to be the first or second largest party.

Yet the normal pattern of Irish elections may continue with Fianna Fail winning the most seats. Sinn Féin would be weary about going into a coalition with either of the big parties: as well as the recent example of the hammering Labour got, the Green Party lost all the seats after serving with Fine Gael from 2007-11.


But that Sinn Féin will have to form a coalition is not in doubt: Indeed, even with the swing in their favour, they are only running 42 candidates, and you need 80 to form a majority.

For those interested in an alternative future for Ireland, it is important to note that ‘The Sinn Féin surge is a surge within a surge, and that broader surge is to the left,’ as writer Una Mullaly has recently stated. A left coalition is what many people have their eyes on: unlikely but not possible. If Sinn Féin don't eat up the left votes, together with the smaller left parties (Labour, Greens, Social Democrats, and the radical left parties such as People Before Profit) they could form a government.

As Michael Taft is a researcher for Irish trade union SIPTU, has noted, the left grouping polled over 30 percent of the vote in 2016. “However, it was far from cohesive. In essence, it was not conscious of itself as an emerging bloc ready to rival the centre-right parties.”

Equally as important as the crisis of the centre-right parties is what is happening on the sidelines. Festering in the background is the rise of the far-right, both in a street and electoral sense. Right/far-right candidates are running in all but 10 constituencies. They are unlikely to win any seats, but they are attempting to get any good showings that they can hope to build on.

Even if the results of this election are not felt until the next one, it has marked a definite shift in Irish politics.