Published in The Guardian, January 31st 2020

As Ireland prepares for its upcoming general election it looks like, for once, something interesting could actually happen. With the country’s two leading parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, traditionally offering variations of right and centre-right, it can be difficult to expect any radical change in national politics. But recent polls suggest a leftward surge in support for Sinn Féin, particularly among young and progressive voters – something that would have seemed unimaginable a decade ago.

Ireland in recent years has successfully projected an image of prosperity and social liberalism. The taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is a gay, mixed-race man who light-heartedly compares colourful socks with Justin Trudeau and has been spotted backstage at LCD Soundsystem and Kylie Minogue gigs. His party ushered in two high-profile referendums that saw gay marriage and access to abortion legalised. Varadkar has also been widely praised for putting in a strong performance with regard to Brexit.

Fine Gael has dominated Irish political life for almost 10 years, entering government in 2011 in coalition with Labour, and then again in 2016 with the support of Fianna Fáil and independents. It claims credit for the Irish economy’s recovery since the 2008 financial crash, and its subsequent prosperity, with unemployment at just 4.8%. But recent polls see Fine Gael falling behind on 23%, with Fianna Fáil in a steady lead at 26% and Sinn Féin a close third, enjoying an eight-point surge to 19%, with support particularly strong among under-35s.

So why would voters turn against a party with a seemingly stellar record, potentially to favour a party whose historic links to the IRA make it an unpalatable proposition to many older voters?

For some, the election on 8 February is an opportunity for a genuine shift away from the largely rightwing politics that has dominated Irish life for 90 years – with policies that have lately paid lip service to identity politics while implementing austerity measures and maintaining corporate tax rates that have produced stark inequality. When competing headlines leap from a homeless man receiving “life-changing injuries” after his tent was removed by a Dublin city council vehicle to news of Ireland having the fifth-largest number of billionaires per capita in the world, it is no wonder that many people are palpably angry.

Sinn Féin’s popularity has been growing in part due to the failure of other left-leaning parties to present a credible alternative to Ireland’s de facto two-party system. Labour, centre-left and once the country’s third-largest party, was decimated in the 2015 general election, after its time in coalition government implementing painful austerity cuts.

Then there are the young Irish voters. The referendums of 2015 and 2018 showed a youth electorate that was engaged, savvy and with a desire for change – one defined by anti-establishment sentiment. It is a mood that has given rise to the likes of Podemos in Spain, but in the absence of any Irish equivalent, many young people are turning to a historic outlier, Sinn Féin. Often referred to as the political branch of the IRA, Sinn Féin has long been the party of the hard left, appealing largely to staunch republicans, lower-income sections and Dublin’s working class. In recent years, its politics have somewhat softened, as the Troubles receded, to embrace a more broadly socialist bent.

But being merely seen as a credible alternative will not propel Sinn Féin into government. While Fine Gael had banked on its handling of the economy and Brexit to secure votes, polls show that issues such as housing and health matter more to voters. A desperate shortage in housing supply, spiralling costs and a homelessness crisis has become a source of constant strife, with the housing minister, Eoghan Murphy, rightly labelled the villain of national politics. Sinn Féin’s policy on housing in its ambitious manifesto, then, could be key: a promise to pay back €1,500 to renters, a three-year rent freeze, and the largest public housing funding scheme the state has ever seen.

What has played well for Sinn Féin, too, is its talent for reaching the public and getting a message across. During the abortion and marriage equality referendums it was an early and proactive supporter for change, with leader Mary Lou McDonald in particular gaining popularity among young women due to her support of the “repeal the eighth” campaign.

If young people do vote for Sinn Féin in significant numbers, their lack of hesitancy in supporting a party with such historic ties to the IRA will be notable. Although the party has always denied its previous leader Gerry Adams’s role in violent IRA activities, his proximity to it is an accepted part of Irish life. But people who grew up in Ireland in the late 1990s and beyond don’t really have a living memory of the IRA or the Troubles. They don’t share an older generation’s distaste for the party simply because they were not around for what that entailed. In fact, ironic invocations of the IRA have become something of a risqué online trend in recent times, with slogans such as “Up the RA!” and “Brits Out!” used casually. It’s a trivialising attitude that lacks taste, perhaps, but it drains the IRA of its menace and goes some way to illustrating the disconnect between Sinn Féin’s history and its place in the minds of the young electorate.

What is clear is that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil may have to revise their repeated refusals to enter a coalition with Sinn Féin if its strong polling extends to the ballot box. That could depend on the youth vote – particularly in a country with a large young population. Ultimately, this election might result in more centre-right status quo, especially as the two main parties poll well among the over-45s, but the performance of Sinn Féin could be this election’s real story. It suggests the radical rumblings previously hinted at are here to stay, and that genuine change could be in the hands of Ireland’s young voters.

 Ren © 2021