Sunday, May 28

How Sinn Fein’s Growth Is Roiling Irish Politics: QuickTake

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Rooted in its campaign for a united Ireland, Sinn Fein was long an outsider in politics due to its links with the Irish Republican Army. With the conflict in Northern Ireland largely over following a 1998 peace deal, the movement has reinvented itself to appeal to a new generation of voters. It now stands a chance of becoming the biggest party in both the north and south of the island, making its demand for a referendum on unification harder to ignore.  

The party, whose name means “Ourselves Alone,” was created amid the campaign for Irish home rule at the start of the 20th century. After the Catholic south won its independence from Britain in 1921, Sinn Fein continued to oppose Britain’s hold on the mostly Protestant north. It only began to seriously contest elections south of the border in the 1980s under a strategy known as the “Armalite and the Ballot Box.” (The former is a gun manufacturer). Today, it’s a broadly center-left party that campaigns for higher government spending, better housing and increased taxes on the rich. 

2. What role did it play in the north?

During the conflict known as the Troubles, Sinn Fein was seen widely as the political wing of the republican movement that also included the Provisional IRA. The fighting was triggered by street protests in 1968 and claimed about 3,500 lives through to the Good Friday agreement. Sinn Fein’s leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness helped to negotiate the peace deal and moved into government in Northern Ireland. 

3. How popular is Sinn Fein today?

It’s been the biggest nationalist group in the north’s power-sharing assembly since 2003, and opinion polls suggest it will overtake the Democratic Unionists as the largest party in an election on May 5. If it does, Sinn Fein could get to choose the region’s first minister for the first time since the Good Friday accord, a seismic shift in a region historically dominated by parties loyal to Britain. South of the border in the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein has moved from fringe to mainstream after doubling its vote between 2007 and 2016. In 2020, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail — the two parties that have largely dominated Irish politics since the state’s foundation — had to form a coalition to keep Sinn Fein out of power. 

4. Why the surge in support?

Wrangling over how to keep trade flowing with EU-member Ireland after Britain’s departure from the European Union has made Northern Ireland’s position within the U.K. a major issue once more, playing into the party’s key message. Brexit has also sown discord within Sinn Fein’s arch-rival the DUP, which has lost voters to other unionist parties and centrists. The May 5 election could help to determine the region’s final post-Brexit arrangements as the assembly gets to vote on the issue in 2024 and has the power to scrap the status quo altogether. In the south, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael’s support for each other since 2016 has allowed Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald to present herself as the only true agent of change. The party is especially popular among younger voters who were hit hardest by a housing shortage and have little memory of the Troubles. 

5. What are Sinn Fein’s main policies?

Sinn Fein wants planning to begin for a referendum on reunifying the island. In Northern Ireland, it’s also campaigning on a promise to help voters deal with the soaring cost of living. In the republic, it wants to freeze residential rents and increase government spending on new homes. It plans to abolish property levies, close corporate tax loopholes, ensure the rich contribute more in tax and cut the official age of retirement.

6. What does it mean for a united Ireland?

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, only the British government is supposed to call a vote on unification if it’s seen as likely to pass in the north. There would then need to be a vote in the Republic as well. It’s not clear that growing support for Sinn Fein reflects increased enthusiasm for a united Ireland: Only 32% of people backed the idea in an April poll for The Irish News, with 48% opposed. Significantly, more than half of those polled would be against unification if it meant paying higher taxes. 

(Adds links to latest opinion polls and to news feature in Reference Shelf section)

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