What Sinn Fein Is and How It’s Roiling Irish Politics

(Bloomberg) -- Long an outsider in Irish politics because of its links with the Irish Republican Army, Sinn Fein has now moved center stage. The party won the popular vote in the February general election and looks set to be second in terms of number of seats. All parties are now eyeing possible coalition partners, and it’s not clear what the next government will look like. But Sinn Fein is likely to play a pivotal role, having delivered a seismic jolt to Irish politics.

1. What is Sinn Fein?

Sinn Fein (Ourselves Alone) is rooted in the cause of Irish unity. The political wing of the Irish Republican Army, the party began to seriously contest elections in the 1980s as part of a strategy known as the “Armalite and the Ballot Box.” (The former is a gun manufacturer.) With the armed conflict in Northern Ireland largely over, it’s grown into a broadly center left party, contesting elections north and south of the border on a platform of tackling austerity and taxing the wealthy.

2. What role did it play in ‘The Troubles’?

For decades Sinn Fein was associated in the public mind with the Provisional IRA -- the republican paramilitary group fighting to remove Britain from Northern Ireland. Known as The Troubles, the conflict claimed about 3,500 lives from the protests of 1968 onward through to the Good Friday peace accord in 1998. Led by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein helped negotiate that deal, and moved into government in Northern Ireland. (Its lawmakers do not take their seats in the House of Commons in London because they refuse to recognize the U.K. parliament’s right to legislate for any part of Ireland.)

3. How popular is Sinn Fein today?

Sinn Fein has been slowly building support in the Republic of Ireland. In the 2007 election, the party scored 7%. By 2016, that figure had doubled. On Feb. 8 the party won about 25% of first preference votes, ahead of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar‘s Fine Gael and the main opposition Fianna Fail, the two parties that have largely dominated Irish politics since the state’s foundation almost a century ago. However Sinn Fein did not field enough candidates to win the most seats.

4. Why the surge in support?

Since 2016, Fianna Fail has propped up Varadkar’s minority government. That’s allowed Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald to present herself as the only true agent of change. The party is particularly popular with younger voters who have been hardest hit by a housing shortage and have little memory of Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Yet it won support across age groups, according to an exit poll published immediately after polls closed.

5. What are Sinn Fein’s key policies?

On housing, it wants to freeze rents, cap mortgage interest rates and increase government spending on new homes. On taxes, it seeks to abolish property levies and close corporate tax loopholes as well as make the rich contribute more. It proposes to reduce the retirement age back to 65 and has pledged not to sell off the government’s stake in AIB Group Plc. It also wants to begin planning for a referendum within five years on reunifying Ireland.

6. Will it join a coalition?

That’s not clear. While Ireland usually elects coalition or minority administrations, both Varadkar and Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin had ruled out a tie-up with Sinn Fein. The grounds may be shifting, though, with Martin saying he had an “obligation” to find a functioning government. For her part, McDonald said after the vote her preference was to lead a government without Fine Gael or Fianna Fail but she would speak to both. Betting odds rate a Fianna Fail/Sinn Fein coalition as most likely. Sinn Fein’s best chance of power though may come in the next election. By remaining outside government, it can continue to challenge unpopular policies while marshaling more candidates for what would be a long road to power.

7. What does this mean for Brexit?

The Brexit saga may have stoked anti-British sentiment and helped Sinn Fein during this election campaign. But if the party does end up in government, there is little sign that Irish policy on Brexit will fundamentally change. All parties, including Sinn Fein, supported the government’s stance during the withdrawal negotiations and on the deal that avoided a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. That consensus is likely to continue through the trade negotiations between the U.K. and European Union to come.

8. What does this mean for a united Ireland?

A united Ireland is, in the words of Sinn Fein’s manifesto, its “core political objective.” During the election campaign it said five years was a realistic timeframe for a referendum on unity, an idea which Ireland’s two other main parties view as unrealistic. Sinn Fein highlighted issues like housing and health care during the 2020 campaign. According to an exit poll just 1% of voters were focused on Brexit, the closest proxy to Irish unity in the election. Even if Sinn Fein makes it into government, it couldn’t call a border poll. Under the terms of the Northern Ireland peace accord, that’s up to the British government. There’s no prospect of that happening in the near term.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg Opinion’s Lionel Laurent examines Ireland’s low-tax model.
  • How investors are getting on top of what a Sinn Fein government could look like.
  • Sinn Fein’s election manifesto.

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