Just 30 years ago, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) shelled Downing Street with three mortar shells while former UK Prime Minister John Major chaired a cabinet meeting.
A couple divided over the Irish border over post-Brexit rules
In 2021, Sinn Féin, the political party associated with the IRA for much of the conflict, has become the frontrunner to lead Ireland’s next government in what could be the state’s biggest political upheaval since its founding 100 years ago.
Ireland is three years away from the next general election and the victory of Sinn Féin or any other party is not assured, but the slow seismic shift in Irish politics has hardly been analyzed outside the country, despite the change already generated by its dynamics.
“The question is not whether Sinn Féin will come to power, but when it will,” says a prominent businessman who prefers not to reveal his identity.
Such is the transformation to the south of the border of the island of Ireland and the constant courtship of the middle classes, that it has generated tensions over the identity of the party in the north of the border – Northern Ireland.
Before Christmas, one of the members of the lower house of Parliament, Housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin, urged Gerry Adams to apologize for a comic sketch Christmas where he joked about a slogan associated with the IRA. In times past this would have opened a disciplinary matter.
Political analysts have attributed the party’s remarkable growth south of the border to the transformative powers of its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, which is not linked to the time of the Northern Irish conflict and which represents a radical break with the past.
But it is also due to a tactical shift – prioritizing issues of housing, the economy and health before a united Ireland – that expanded its appeal beyond the working classes that were once its stronghold.
His leadership grows poll after poll after a year of explosive advancement over the two parties that have dominated Irish politics for a century. According to a survey in mid-December Irish Times / Ipsos MRBISinn Féin has a support of 35%, an apparently insurmountable gap for the two parties that govern in coalition – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – that mark 20% each. In previous surveys Sinn Féin stood at 32% and 33%.
Labor politician Andrew Adonis, who traveled to Dublin in October to attend the party conference and wrote a 3,000-word article on his rise for the February issue of Prospect, says: “The event of a political revolution is clearly seen. This will sound like something incredible, but it is true, the thirst for power and discipline that pushed its leader to power reminded me of the New Labor of the 1990s” .
The businessman talks about how the party polishes its electoral potential day by day, making statements to suppress ties with the darkness of the past and announcing state policies that seek to “detoxify” Sinn Féin from the middle classes. It is notable that he has not confronted the government regarding low corporate taxes and has said that he will only raise taxes “for the richest 3%.”
McDonald told party supporters gathered during the Ard Fheis (annual conference) that the pandemic had exposed the breakdown of the housing system, low rents, inadequate health care and rising costs of living. Shortly after, he traveled to the United States, where he gave lectures to the National Press Club in Washington DC and the New York Bar Association on the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland and the potential unification of the island.
The party has also forged ties with business groups in an effort to detoxify its image in corporate circles. An information from Sunday Business Post Ireland notes that while McDonald “accuses the government of rolling out the red carpet to vulture funds and institutional investors,” its analysis of the lobbying group record reveals that business entities that avoided having contact with the party in the past were now trying to open communication channels.
Sinn Féin is a reserved and highly disciplined party, its members rarely straying from the line marked by the leadership. The newspaper’s information also says that McDonald directed its members to establish contact with companies, unions and industry groups as part of their preparation to reach the government.
That Sinn Féin rules in Dublin opens the possibility of having the Republican party, founded in 1970, in power both north and south of the border, which could dramatically change the relationship with the United Kingdom and influence the debate, which wins Drive south of the border, on the junction of the island of Ireland.
Polls show that it could also be the most voted party in the May 2022 elections for the Stormont assembly in Northern Ireland.
His growth in the Republic of Ireland became clear in 2020, after the increase in his base of support led him to garner the most first-preference votes in the February general election. The result did not translate into a seizure of power because the party was running 42 candidates in a race for 159 seats, but “it generated momentous changes in the political landscape,” according to Agnès Maillot, a politics professor at Dublin City University. and author of Rebels in Power, a new book on Sinn Féin. “Until 2020 its advance could be described as a protest vote,” says the author.
Historian Diarmaid Ferriter says that it was more successful in 2020 among the middle classes and wealthier voters and that the party had evolved through “compromise and adaptation.” “This party is the legacy of Gerry Adams. In many respects, he was its architect, in the sense that he adapted Sinn Féin to constitutional goals and adjusted its more purist positions in different instances from the 1980s onwards.”
Ferriter says the sense of timing is nothing new to Sinn Féin. The party used to refrain from participating in Westminster and Dublin politics, but abandoned that position in Dublin in the late 1980s. Another important instance was the 1998 referendum that removed from the Irish constitution an article declaring its sovereignty over 32 counties to pave the way for the Good Friday agreement.
“Their acceptance of the existence of Northern Ireland was another instance where they embraced the principle of consensus. All these assignments brought them back into a more acceptable formation,” says Ferriter.
Sinn Féin’s future success will depend on how it fares in the opposition over the next three years, as popular policies on housing and health come under increased scrutiny and the question of its past comes to the fore.
Ferriter draws similarities to Fianna Fáil on the eve of civil war and independence in 1921. The party was said to be “in the shadow of the gunmen,” but “recovered fairly quickly by emphasizing that she had impeccable conservative credentials, that They were not communists and they believed in God, “he adds.
“Sinn Féin will obviously grapple with the legacies of the Northern Irish conflict that come to light from time to time, but that doesn’t seem to stop his momentum, suggesting that this shift is generational,” he adds.
Kevin Cunningham, a former UK Labor Party chief analyst who is now a professor of politics at Dublin University of Technology, sees Sinn Féin’s rise as one stemming from a nation in which trust is growing and which is moving away from politics. civil war that produced the two majority parties on the island.
“Since around 1980 and due to the decline in religiosity in Ireland we see a constant increase in the number of voters or followers of political parties who identify with the left,” he says.
“Fianna Fáil’s votes, added to Fine Gael’s, stayed around 80% until 1980 and then fell decade after decade,” he says.
“There were other left-wing parties during those years. The Social Democrats and the Labor Party in particular have been incredibly weak, but at the same time a subset of the population identifies with the left and Sinn Féin has captured that and to some extent This resulted in the normalization of Irish politics, “he says. “When we ask people why they vote for Sinn Féin, the main reason is that they want a change from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Very few cite something that the party or its leader promotes.”
Translation by Ignacio Rial-Schies