The rise & rise of Sinn Féin – how did it happen?

By Colm O’Dwyer, Account Executive

Two weeks ago, they were in third place. Then they were second. Next, they were neck-on-neck with Fianna Fáil. And finally, they have taken the lead. Can anything stop the rise of Sinn Féin? Well in this election, it appears the only obstacle is the number of candidates they have in the field. 

That aside, it caught us all off-guard. The Greens were pegged as the ones to watch – and they still are to some extent – but due to a poor local election performance in May, Sinn Fein was written off by everyone. 

So, what has caused this surge and what does it mean for a likely government formation next week, a United Ireland and business? 

The latest Irish Times Election Polling (03/02/2020) – Sinn Féin lead for the first time ever

Monday night’s Irish Times poll represents the culmination of a meteoric rise for Sinn Féin over the past few weeks. For the first time in the history of the poll series (or indeed, any poll series) Sinn Féin are the single most popular party among the Irish electorate. 

Few would have expected this only a few short months ago, when the party was decimated in the European and local elections. Nonetheless, the party’s persistent focus on the core issues of this campaign – housing and health, providing ambitious (if not over-ambitious) policy solutions to these problems, has seen their support rise precipitously – especially among the young and the working class. Despite Mary Lou McDonald’s shaky performance, last night’s three-way party debate between Michéal Martin, Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald confirms Sinn Féin’s status as a major party in the Republic, and a serious candidate for government. 

The question remains, however – why this election? 

How did it happen? 

In understanding Sinn Féin’s steady rise to major party status, it is worth considering what factors have held back Sinn Féin’s success in the Republic since they first re-entered the Dáil in 1997 – primarily, their perceived lack of interest or competence in ‘bread and butter’ policy issues, their reputation as an outsider “Northern party” running in the south, as well as their past connection to militant Republicanism. Whilst their unambiguous position on Green-Orange and nationalist issues has long been enough to secure them a comfortable place at the table among Nationalists north of the border, for voters in the Republic who are more apathetic about the constitutional question this has never been enough. 

For decades the party was led by Northern Irish, working class men like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, giving a somewhat foreign and unfamiliar persona to the party and always limiting their appeal among middle class voters. The rise of South Dublin-raised, Trinity College-educated and solidly middle-class Mary Lou McDonald to the leadership in 2018 has done more to change this aspect of the ‘Sinn Féin’ brand than could have been imagined only a few short years ago. Her own personal satisfaction ratings, which have risen sharply since the beginning of the campaign, will be one important element in attracting non-traditional Sinn Féin voters to the party on Saturday. 

In the meantime, the entry of the Labour Party into coalition with Fine Gael in 2011 certainly did create a vacuum for a left-wing opposition party like Sinn Féin to fill. This vacuum was exacerbated by the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael confidence and supply agreement following the last election, with many people feeling that a ‘real alternative’ to the civil war parties was lacking in Irish politics. 

Also, their increasingly prevalent media and social media presence has likewise played an important role in building up the party’s support among young people. Sinn Féin’s Twitter following dwarfs that of the larger two parties combined, whilst former leader Gerry Adam’s 172k followers rivals those of the Taoiseach.  It is well known that Sinn Fein also has an army of keyboard warriors (so called “Shinnerbots”) at the ready to criticise Fine Gael & Fianna Fáil, and to enhance their spokespersons online, a tactic other parties have not used.

The power trio 

The power trio – Eoin Ó Broin, Pearse Doherty, Mary Lou McDonald. Source: Sinn Fein, used under Creative Commons 4.0 licence. All rights reserved.

Sinn Féin’s solution to broadening their appeal has been nothing short of a master class and can be best understood in terms of the ‘power trio’ of Mary Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty, and Eoin Ó Broin. These three politicians (among others like health spokesperson Louise O’Reilly) have shifted Sinn Féin’s reputation from a party of outsiders, weak on the policy details, to a party with a considered, platform at the heart of the Irish policy debate. 

Whilst Finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty comes from a more traditional Donegal Sinn Féin background, his grasp on the finance brief has made him a key member of the Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform. This culminated in the passing of his personal project the Consumer Insurance Contracts Bill through all stages of the Oireachtas in December 2019, which was described as a “game-changer” by the Alliance for Insurance Reform. 

Similarly, Eoin Ó Broin’s firm grip on the Housing brief and raft of radical (though nuanced) policy proposals gives him the air of a minister-in-waiting. His book on housing policy ‘Home: Why Public Housing is the Answer’, published in August 2019 has been praised both by an academic and general audience, with several politicians from other parties admitting to having read it. 

Coalition formation 

Despite Sinn Féin’s rising popularity, they are unlikely to emerge as the biggest party in the new Dáil. As nominations ended prior to their surge in the polls, they only nominated 42 candidates. This means that they have only nominated one candidate in many constituencies where they may have stood a chance of electing two.  

Nonetheless, if they succeed in winning over 30 seats, this represents a significant block which the other two main parties will struggle to exclude from coalition negotiations. Also, Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin has aired Sinn Féin’s request that Sinn Féin voters give their subsequent transfer votes to other parties “who represent real change”. A clear tactic to form a left government next week with Sinn Fein at the centre. 

Whilst Michéal Martin and Leo Varadkar have so far ‘ruled out’ going into coalition with Sinn Féin, this may well change after the dust has settled. The two leaders’ distinct reasons for this position may come into play here: for Varadkar, it comes down purely to policy; describing Sinn Féin as “soft on crime and high on taxes”. Michéal Martin on the other hand has expressed more concern about the internal workings of Sinn Féin’s Ard Comhairle. It could be argued then that Varadkar can more easily come to a compromise with Sinn Féin on policy issues, although the policy gap between the two parties is significant. It is also notable that Michéal Martin would have to get his own Ard Comhairle’s backing in order to pass any coalition agreement – a potentially insurmountable obstacle. 

A ‘Grand Coalition’ between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is also not out of the question as a last resort in order to form a government free of Sinn Féin. Nonetheless, the two centre-right parties will try to avoid this if at all possible, as this would leave Sinn Féin as the largest (and undoubtedly the loudest) voice of opposition for the coming Dáil, quite possibly leading to a permanent realignment of the party system. 

The centre-left trio of Labour, the Greens and the Soc Dems still hope to play a ‘king maker’ role in the coming administration and may well still be brought in to make up the numbers. Nonetheless, if the latest polls are in anyway accurate, a simple appendage of these parties or ‘gene pool’ independents to either of the traditional parties of government will not be enough to form a working majority. 

Betting odds for the composition of the next government (source: Paddy Power 05/02/2020)

What does this mean for Business?

To the ears of business leaders, Sinn Féin’s policy manifesto reads like a less than appetising menu: A 5% levy on income in excess of €140,000, a wealth tax on net wealth in excess of €1 million, increase in the annual bank levy, commercial property stamp duty and the dividend withholding tax. The party would also abolish the Special Assignee Relief Program, making it more difficult for companies to attract highly skilled executives to Ireland.

However, it is almost unthinkable that either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael would be willing to hand over the purse strings to Sinn Féin, and therefore Pearse Doherty is extremely unlikely to find himself in the position of Minister for Finance if Sinn Féin are included in a coalition. A more likely position may be as Minister of State for Financial Services and Insurance. Similarly, it is unlikely Sinn Féin would push for the inclusion of Imelda Munster in cabinet as Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, as they hold other ministerial positions in much higher priority.

A United Ireland?

Whilst Sinn Féin have not ruled out working with either of the other main parties, they have set down as a red line that they will only enter government if a border poll on a United Ireland can be held within the term of the government.

The holding of a reunification poll is not in the gift of a Dublin government, requiring also the signoff of the UK’s Northern Ireland secretary (in practice the Prime Minister). Whether Boris Johnson could be convinced to hold a poll remains an open question: Given that he has demonstrated a willingness to loosen Northern Ireland’s alignment to Great Britain in order to get a Brexit deal over the line, his commitment to the continued union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is less than certain.

What is certain, however, is that an Irish government including Sinn Féin would be a strong voice in favour of the benefits of reunification. If in the coming years, Scotland leaves the UK, the position of Northern Ireland within the union is likely to become ever more uncertain. The Sinn Féin leadership has shown in recent times a canny ability to jump on external developments to the benefit of their primary goal – a United Ireland. Sinn Féin’s holding office both north and south of the border would certainly bolster their ambition to achieve this aim in the medium- rather than longer-term.

Looking forward

The final debates of the campaign will occur on Thursday night, prior to the media moratorium kicking in on Friday. On RTÉ, the leaders of the smaller parties will be given the opportunity to put forward their case.  

Meanwhile, on Virgin Media One the Deputy leaders of the three largest parties will face off. Fine Gael will be hoping that Simon Coveney can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat for them, given that he is certainly more well-known and a more seasoned debater than either Fianna Fáil’s Dara Calleary or Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty. It is a strong possibility that Coveney will give the standout Fine Gael performance of the campaign, although whether it will be enough to turn the tide remains improbable.

The election on Saturday will undoubtedly deliver a shock to the cosy ‘civil war politics’ consensus which has governed the country since its foundation. The certainty of even a joint Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael majority has never looked so threatened. Will this election bring about a fundamental reorientation of the Irish party system and of Irish political life?

We will have to wait and see.

Get in Touch

Colm O'Dwyer

Account Executive

Aideen Ginnell

Ireland Director