Irish republican Sinn Fein party leader Mary Lou McDonald (centre) celebrates with her supporters in the RDS centre in Dublin, Ireland, on February 9. File/Agence France-Presse
“People wanted to kick the government and Sinn Fein provided the shoe to do the kicking,” says Christy Parker, a journalist from the beautiful but de-industrialised town of Youghal in county Cork. He speaks of the “chasm” between the elite benefiting from Ireland’s impressive economic progress and the large part of the population that has been left behind.
Youghal never recovered from the loss of its carpet and textile factories that flourished when I grew up there in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, surveys show that many of its people still yearn for the return of the factories that once provided good jobs. One can see why: the main street is today lined with closed shops, though the cost of renting a flat is high and has doubled over the last eight or nine years.
The town is one of many places in Ireland untouched by the original Celtic Tiger or the economic recovery from the 2008 recession. “Every week people are hearing some new shocking story about the homeless trying to live off food banks somewhere in the country,” says Parker.
I have heard exactly the same phrases being used in the UK to explain why people voted for Brexit. In former coal mining and steel making towns in the Welsh Valleys, I was told that they felt betrayed by everybody in authority from the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff to Westminster and Brussels, “but it was the EU against which people decided to push back.” A man from Walsall said that people there did not care if the GDP of the UK went up or down after Brexit, because they did not consider it “to be their GDP”.
The general election on 8 February was Ireland’s “Brexit moment” when a wide variety of establishment chickens came home to roost, as many voters expressed deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. An exit poll showed that 63 per cent of voters believed that they had not benefited from recent economic improvements.
Politicians and commentators on all sides confirmed the exit poll evidence that the issues which mattered most to voters were health care, housing and homelessness. This is true but tends to obscure the fact that in Ireland, as in the UK and US, voters chose a vociferously nationalist party as the vehicle through which they expressed their rejection of the status quo. In Ireland, Sinn Fein stumbled on a winning political formula whose potency it at first underrated but raised its share of the vote from 9.5 to 24.5 per cent between disastrous local council elections last May and the triumphant general election nine months later. The change in the party’s political prospects may have been astonishing, but nobody believes them to be a flash in the pan protest vote. There is a general assumption that, if there is another general election, and Sinn Fein makes no calamitous mistakes, the party will field enough candidates, as it failed to do this time around, and will win a more complete victory.
The motives of the Irish voters may have been social and economic, but the fact that a quarter of them plumped for Sinn Fein will have a profound influence on Northern Ireland and Ireland’s relations with Britain. For the first time a single party, Sinn Fein, will be politically powerful on both sides of the border, a partner with the DUP in Belfast and potentially either a leading partner in the next Irish government in Dublin or the main opposition to it. This creates a degree of de facto Irish unity never experienced before and will be deeply resented by unionists who see the balance of power swinging against them.
Sinn Fein’s political dominance in the nationalist/Catholic community in the north, that had been showing signs of faltering, will be reinforced. But the unionist/Protestant community, which last year saw Boris Johnson renege on his promises of support, by agreeing to a customs barrier separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, is feeling the ground beginning to give way under its feet.
Brian Feeney, a columnist for the Irish News in Belfast, says history shows that northern nationalists “like republican politics, but they don’t like republican violence”. Destabilisation is most likely to come from the unionist side and a sign of this may be hoax bomb threats against nationalist targets in Belfast in recent days.
A further cause of instability is the British government itself: the highly regarded Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith was summarily dismissed in the cabinet reshuffle this week, despite winning plaudits from all sides for brokering the power-sharing deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP that reopened the assembly at Stormont. Smith’s was reportedly sacked due to pledging to investigate alleged crimes committed by British soldiers during the Troubles.
Getting rid of Smith may be an early sign that, under Johnson, English nationalist sensitivities will get priority over keeping Northern Ireland stable.
Voters say that Brexit was not a significant influence on the way they cast their vote in the election, probably because they wrongly supposed that the problem was solved. But Ireland remains the EU’s front line state, which gives it influence in Brussels but ensures constant friction with the UK.
From Sinn Fein’s point of view, it has been a successful 40 years’ march since it first started winning elections during the hunger strikes of 1980/81 as Daniel Finn describes in his important book One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA. The initial slogan was that “Will anyone here object if, with a ballot box in this hand and an Armalite in this hand, we take power in Ireland?” These are not words that Sinn Fein’s many enemies are likely to allow it to forget, but during the election campaign just finished, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil claims that the shadow of the gunman still tainted Sinn Fein were mostly ignored. The accusation may resonate with older voters, but not with younger ones with no experience of “physical force” republicanism.
Constitutional action has worked too well for Sinn Fein to try anything else. It has also cut the ground from under dissident republicans seeking to return to violence. Northern nationalists know that demographic change is propelling them towards a voting majority. In the south, they are no longer hobbled politically by memories of The Troubles.
Sinn Fein may well congratulate itself that years of struggle have produced its present successes. But it has also been extremely lucky: after trying and failing to make Irish partition an international issue for almost a century, the Brexit vote in 2016 automatically did so by potentially turning the border into an international frontier between the UK and the EU. Sinn Fein chose the right issues on which to campaign in the general election, but it was also the almost accidental beneficiary of disillusionment with traditional parties, and that disillusionment has been leading to these parties’ shock defeat in elections across the world.