The rise and rise of Sinn Fein

Over the course of the last decade Sinn Fein’s support in the Irish Republic has almost tripled. Figures from last December showed them to have the first-preference support of 21% of the electorate (Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI). Another poll from the 15th of February showed a continued rise to 26% (Sunday Independent/Millward Brown). An Irish election must happen before April of next year. Experts however are increasingly predicting an earlier date, with former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern recently suggesting that a premature vote is inevitable, partly as a response to the surge in support for Sein Fein.

The magnitude of this increase should not be underestimated. In the 1987 election, Sinn Fein came in at less than 2%, and even as recently as 2007 managed to secure just 7% in the polls. This rise has come despite a multitude of recent scandals damaging the party, from the brother of Gerry Adams (party president) being convicted of child abuse, to Adams himself being arrested in connection with a 1972 murder and disappearance. Most recently, the Republican movement in general, and Mr Adams in particular, emerged with no credit from accusations of a cover-up concerning a 1997 rape by a member of the IRA.

Many political parties would be crucially damaged, at least temporarily, by such a plethora of allegations. Not so Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams. The overarching shadow lingering over Sinn Fein is that of the Troubles, which played a part, to different degrees, in the above mentioned scandals. Ireland, and Sinn Fein, have come a long way since the Good Friday Agreement. Notwithstanding this progress, a vote for Sinn Fein is a vote for a party that until recently was intrinsically linked to terrorism. The 1981 pledge by militant Republicans, to take power with a gun in one hand and a ballot box in the other, is close to becoming half true. Sinn Fein and the IRA have ditched the violence, but have a chance of some kind of victory at the next election.

The reasons for these potentially crippling issues having little effect on Sein Fein support are unclear. Undoubtedly the collapse of the Irish economy has been advantageous for the Republicans. Sinn Fein have attacked cuts on public services, arguing instead for a tax on assets worth over one million euros, and propose to raise the top-level of income tax to 48%. They appear to offer an alternative to the main parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, which are increasingly seen as almost identical, separated only by a waning memory of the 1920s civil war. The Irish Labour Party continues to garner relatively little support, despite, or because of, being part of the coalition government. In the current atmosphere of economic strife, this is in itself revealing: Sinn Fein have stolen the political space a traditional left-of-centre party might be expected to occupy.

Seemingly then Sinn Fein bear the weight of history lightly, or even make a virtue of it. The upcoming centenary of the Easter Rising is loudly proclaimed on their website, and the fact that the anniversary virtually coincides with the scheduled election may prove an advantage. The centenary has become an active political issue: the Fine Gael-Labour government have been accused of not taking the commemorations seriously, and, in the face of fierce criticism, had to withdraw the original video outlining their program of events. Adams was quick to capitalise, accusing the government of being ashamed of the memory of 1916, and by implication the memory of the executed leaders of the rising.

There are other historical parallels Sinn Fein may be keen to draw. Current support for their brand of Republicanism has not been higher since the 1918 election, held in the shadow of the rising, when they took 73 out of 105 seats. A repetition of this landslide is implausible, but some sort of victory is not. It is unclear what the composition of the next Irish government could possibly be: nobody wants to work with anyone else. Even if Sinn Fein remain outside government, their likely elevation to opposition status would represent substantial progress.

Many would view Sinn Fein growth as positive, and certainly it illustrates how far Irish politics has come since 1998. Others, including many moderate, non-sectarian voices, will remain unsettled by the potential for a government run by men formerly linked to the armed force tradition of Republicanism. The recent laying of a wreath by the Queen at the memorial for the War of Independence era IRA was widely praised. It is likely the prospect of our next Prime Minister negotiating with a government that includes Sinn Fein would be met with greater scepticism, both in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. For the people of the Irish Republic, contemporary issues, especially the economy, will be the most important consideration at the next election. Sinn Fein seem to have found an appealing formula, welding their Republican pedigree to populist policies, and a more robust response from the traditional Irish parties is required if they are to maintain their hegemony.

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