Sinn Féin wasn’t expected to do well in this election, let alone hold the balance of power. The party performed poorly in Ireland’s 2018 presidential election and lost seats in the local and European elections last year. Its historic links to the IRA, paired with its unification aims, have long confined the party to Ireland’s political fringes. So unexpected was its last-minute surge in the polls that the party didn’t field enough candidates to take full advantage of it.
The party’s success can be attributed to the same forces that have propelled other populist groupings around the world: namely, a rejection of the status quo and a desire for real change. According to Eoin O’Malley, a political-science professor at Dublin City University, voters essentially said, “Well, if we really want change, this is the party that is most radical.” Still, he noted that this result doesn’t necessarily represent an endorsement of Sinn Féin’s most radical goal: to seek a referendum on Irish unification. “I don’t think it’s huge on people’s agendas,” O’Malley said. The nativist rhetoric that has accompanied the rise of populist parties in countries such as the U.S. and Italy barely features in Ireland, where the public are more concerned with issues such as health care and housing.
Yet this doesn’t mean that nationalist sentiment in Ireland is weak. Indeed, the country has witnessed an uptick in nationalism in recent years, buoyed in large part by the threat Brexit has posed to the land border separating the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland. Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s current leader, emerged as a central character in the Brexit saga. His ability to maintain the EU’s backing and achieve an agreement with his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, on the issue of the border earned him the support not just of the country, but of his political rivals too.
“We punch above our weight sometimes, but we know we’re a small country,” Kevin Cunningham, an Irish pollster and lecturer at Technological University Dublin, told me. “In that context, the idea of being level even with the Brits in any sort of negotiation is perceived as quite a positive thing.”
Still, some aspects of Ireland’s nationalist surge haven’t been so positive. While Brexit has enhanced Ireland’s power and prestige on the world stage, it has also contributed to a revival of historic tensions between Ireland and Britain, which have manifested in an uptick in anti-English sentiment. “There does seem to be a reawakening of an anti-British nationalism as a result of Brexit,” O’Malley said, noting that such sentiment was indicative of the era before the Good Friday Agreement, the pact between Britain and Ireland that marked the end of the Troubles. Since then, relations have largely warmed—so much so that Queen Elizabeth II made a historic visit to the republic in 2011. Brexit appears to have undone much of that progress, though, and subsequent efforts at promoting reconciliation between Ireland and Britain—including Varadkar’s attempt last month to commemorate a police force active in Ireland during the era of British rule—have been particularly unpopular.