Sinn Féin, the once-IRA-affiliated political party dedicated to uniting Ireland and Northern Ireland under one flag, won a historic victory in Ireland’s national election on Saturday, taking a larger share of the total national vote than any other party. But despite winning the popular vote, the party won’t get the most seats in the Dáil Éireann, the lower house of Ireland’s Parliament, because it only contested 42 out of 160 constituencies — and, as of Sunday night, was expected to win 37 of those 42. (Ireland uses a single transferable vote system of proportional representation with ranked-choice voting, so final results take a few days to sort out.)
The surprising results of this election are illustrative of three broader trends: the growth of nationalist and separatist movements in Europe; the erosion of centrist, two-party consensus democracies; and the destabilizing impact of Brexit on the British Isles.
Sinn Féin, which operates in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, is a left-wing, nationalist, populist, republican (in the sense that it favors uniting the Irish people under one republic) party. Its success is particularly stunning as it was once a pariah in Irish politics due to its historical role as the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, which was responsible for a great deal of violence during the Northern Ireland conflict in the late-20th century. While the party remains tainted by suspicion and scandal surrounding its links to the IRA, Saturday’s victory shows that as far as voters are concerned, Sinn Féin is mainstream enough to govern.
In recent years, particularly since Mary Lou McDonald succeeded the long-serving and controversial party leader Gerry Adams in 2018, the party has reformed itself by downplaying its historical militancy and focusing attention on its social-democratic policy agenda. Sinn Féin remains solidly committed to Irish reunification, but McDonald’s campaign platform this year focused on social and economic issues like homelessness, rising rents, health-care costs, and hospital waiting lists. Sinn Féin won on Saturday by tapping into popular anger over these issues and focusing that anger on the “duopoly” of the two mainstream centrist parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, the incumbent taoiseach (prime minister), has been leading a minority government propped up by a confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil since 2016, and had hung his hopes for victory this year on a track record of solid economic growth and his own adept handling of Brexit. But as we have seen in the U.S., economic growth doesn’t pay political dividends when it is unevenly distributed, and voters don’t care how much the GDP is up when they or their neighbors are struggling to find good jobs or affordable housing.
McDonald said on Sunday that her party would attempt to form a governing coalition, but she has few available pathways to do so. Ireland’s smaller left-wing parties will probably not hold enough seats to form a majority of 80 along with Sinn Féin (notwithstanding some significant gains by the Greens), so the only way McDonald can get her party in government is to ally with one of the other major parties: most likely Fianna Fáil, which is expected to be the largest party in the new Dáil.
Varadkar has repeatedly ruled out joining a coalition with Sinn Féin. Micheal Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil, had said before the election that he would neither form a government with the left-wing republicans nor support another minority government under Fine Gael leadership, but did not rule anything out when asked about his party’s plans on Sunday. Fianna Fáil members are reportedly divided over whether to partner with Sinn Féin, Fine Gael, or nobody at all.
If no bargain is struck between any two of the three leading parties in the coming weeks, another election must be held. This is eerily reminiscent of the situation in Israel, where neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party or its main rival, the centrist Blue and White movement, has been able to form a majority in the Knesset, and so voters are going to the polls for a third time next month to try again. The U.K. also ended up with a hung Parliament in 2017 when Conservative prime minister Theresa May had to form a minority government with backing from the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland — a move that went on to prove fatal to her Brexit plans.
Indeed, the phenomena of stable two-party systems collapsing, inconclusive national elections, and electorates realigning into new coalitions have been taking place in a number of Western democracies over the past five years. France, Italy, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, and Canada have also held elections in the past three years that resulted in hung parliaments, minority governments, surprise gains by new or fringe parties (particularly right-wing nationalist parties and regional separatist parties), massive losses by mainstream parties, unstable coalitions, or governments led by recently formed or radically rebranded parties. Here in the U.S., we’re experiencing a major realignment that is stressing the two-party system, transforming the GOP into a white-nationalist authoritarian personality cult and locking the Democrats in an internecine conflict over whether to remain left-of-center liberals or embrace democratic socialism.
In this context, Ireland’s realignment looks like just another reflection of the international political Zeitgeist. Yet there is something else at play. On the surface, Brexit, and what it means for Ireland’s future relationship with the U.K., was not the main focus of this election, but it could hardly have been absent from Irish voters’ minds. Even though Sinn Féin didn’t campaign heavily on its signature issue in this election, it is advocating a referendum on Irish reunification within the next five years. The U.K.’s departure from the European Union has become part of the Irish nationalists’ rationale for reunification since the Brexit vote in 2016, as a majority in Northern Ireland voted “remain.” Those same voters could conceivably rejoin the E.U. (and solve Brexit’s Irish border problem) by leaving the U.K. and joining a United Ireland.
Whether such a referendum takes place is up to the British government, which will naturally resist it, but the rising tide of Irish nationalism could eventually make it hard for Whitehall to keep saying “No,” especially if in doing so it risks a return to civil conflict in Northern Ireland. Just as resistance to Brexit has underpinned the success of the Scottish National Party and made a second vote on Scottish independence more likely in the next five years, it’s no surprise that it could be having the same effect in Ireland. The change Irish voters cast their ballots for on Saturday could turn out to be much bigger than even they themselves imagined.