The Irish general election result has totally transformed the Irish political landscape but in so doing is likely to also change the Anglo-Irish relationship and the relationship between the two parts of Ireland. In order to understand the full impact of Sinn Féin gaining its largest vote in the Republic since 1922 and the ending of the political duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael it’s necessary to view this in the context of Irish history. The two main parties were the opposing offspring of the Irish Civil War, a war which was fought over the partition of Ireland in 1921 and which cost more Irish lives and left more bitterness in its wake than the Irish War of Independence, which preceded it. Both parties originated from Sinn Féin but in the aftermath of the Civil War, where Fine Gael represented the winning Free State side and Fianna Fáil the losing anti-Treaty side, post 1932 both parties recognised the partition of Ireland to varying degrees and both proceeded to create the reactionary sectarian partitionist state which had its mirror image in the other sectarian state in the North. The Irish Left remained weak and divided and the new state never had a truly Left government, apart from short periods where the Irish Labour Party tried and failed to moderate the right wing tendencies of the Fine Gael party in a series of coalitions. Any talk of the reunification of Ireland was also ruled as being off the agenda for public discussion by both of the rightwing parties and indeed this was the case until Brexit.
Sinn Féin, though represented in the Dáil, was not a major force in the political scene in the Republic. Bad election results in 2019 in both the European elections and the local elections meant that the party did not have high expectations in the general election called by Varadkar and the Fine Gael government in January. Varadkar was banking on the fact that having seemingly fended off the main danger to Ireland of a closed border and secured what seemed to be Ireland’s economic security that a grateful Irish people would return his government to power. However, Brexit and the growing inequality in the Republic have changed things fundamentally. The decline in the power of the Catholic Church in the South and the development of a radical young electorate who voted through the referenda on abortion and equal marriage have created a thirst for change. The huge housing crisis and the meltdown in the Irish health service has created real anger, especially among younger people, who see no hope for the future. Added to that was the incredibly crass decision by the Fine Gael government, backed by Fianna Fáil, to increase the pension age, an issue which Sinn Féin had opposed from the start, meaning that many older voters were also alienated from the right wing parties. Ireland has the youngest and most highly educated electorate in Western Europe and these people want a progressive Left government. By Sinn Féin and other Left parties also calling for Vote Left and Transfer Left in the complex proportional representation transferable voting system meant that Sinn Féin voters also voted in other Left TDs (MPs) and has meant a strong Left cohort in the new Dáil (Irish parliament).
Where does this leave the issue of reunification? Some commentators have suggested that Sinn Féin watered down its call for a border poll in this election but this is not the case. Although reunification may not have been the major issue in the election (opposition to austerity and neoliberalism were) this does not mean that the electorate in the South don’t support it. All the opinion polls point towards support for a border poll and the fact that Sinn Féin support a poll within five years means that there is now a strong mandate for this among at least 25% of the Irish electorate. One Sinn Féin MP has interestingly pointed out that Sinn Féin now has the most votes in two thirds of Irish constituencies North and South, echoing the election of 1918, the last election held on an all Ireland basis.
This result, although it is unclear yet whether Sinn Féin will be in the new government, will have a major impact on Anglo-Irish relations and on the second phase of the Brexit negotations. For a party which has major support in the North of Ireland will be representing both its electorate in the North and South and this will bring the North of Ireland into a much more central role in those negotiations but also will hugely increase pressure on the British government to call a border poll. Furthermore, as was made clear by Sinn Féin at a recent public meeting in London, the EU has stated that any future reunited Irish state will have automatic entry into the EU. Economically and politically many Unionists in the North of Ireland can see that that their future now lies in a new Irish state.
But there are major impediments to this, such as the absence of a free health service in the South. Sinn Féin have always made clear that their aim is not to bring the Unionists into the existing Irish Republic but to create a new socialist state with a free health service, a Bill of Rights for the minority community and many other safeguards.
The transformation of the Irish state into a modern progressive socialist European state under a radical government as opposed to a right wing UK state in hock to Trump and driven by reactionary English nationalism, could well be the catalyst to create a new republic based on equality and justice for all. The historic general election of 2020 can be viewed as the first step on that road.