Ireland’s Nationalist Party Breaks Through

The country’s surprising election results are a rejection of the status quo.

A Sinn Fein candidate celebrates with supporters after the announcement of voting results in Ireland's national election.
A Sinn Fein candidate, Thomas Gould, celebrates with supporters after the announcement of voting results in Ireland's national election. (Henry Nicholls / Reuters)

Mainstream parties falter, only for a new, populist force to fill the vacuum: It’s a familiar tale that has been recounted several times in recent years—in Britain with Brexit, in the United States with the election of Donald Trump, and in scores of other countries around the world.

Ireland, however, has been conspicuously absent from this global populist wave. Unlike many of its European counterparts, whose political establishments have suffered at the expense of populist parties, Ireland has mostly continued to be dominated by two centrist parties that have alternated being in power for the better part of a century. And though the country hasn’t been immune to the issues that have underpinned the rise of anti-establishment forces—including high rents, failing social services, and rampant inequality—none of these forces have proved capable of breaking through.

At least, until now. Over the weekend, Irish voters handed an unprecedented victory to Sinn Féin, a left-wing nationalist party that is perhaps best known for being the political arm of the Irish Republican Army during the decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. Though the seismic shift has largely been attributed more to voter dissatisfaction with mainstream parties than to Sinn Féin’s support for the unification of the Republic of Ireland with Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, it nonetheless comes at a nationalist moment in the country—one in which anti-English sentiment, brought on by Brexit, has grown.

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.

It’s not just Ireland that has seen an increase in nationalist sentiment. Brexit has proved to be a boon for nationalist movements across the U.K., including those in Scotland (where polls now show a surge in support for Scottish independence), Northern Ireland (where Irish nationalists make up the majority of lawmakers), and Wales (which has seen an uptick in its otherwise dormant secessionist movement). Even beyond the U.K., Brexit has inspired other nationalist parties to refine their positions. Euroskeptic parties in Germany, France, and Italy have mostly abandoned previous plans to follow Britain out of the EU, plotting instead to dismantle the bloc from within.

Though Ireland’s ruling parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had previously ruled out forming a coalition with Sinn Féin, the results of the latest election mean they may no longer have a choice. But regardless of whether Sinn Féin enters the Irish government or not, it’s unlikely that its nationalist aims will be realized anytime soon. Though support for reunification in Ireland is high, O’Malley said that people “are not sure about exactly what circumstances they would be willing to accept and vote for it,” especially if it means higher taxes. Should Irish-British relations continue to sour during the next phase of Brexit negotiations, the prospects of reunification could get dimmer still. “If Britain moves away from Ireland, it makes it more difficult for north-south reconciliation,” Cunningham said. “It pulls those communities apart further.”