Sinn Féin: their day has come? Outsiders to opposition
Illustration: Ruby Gray

The rise of Sinn Féin, from their past as the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army to Ireland’s new main opposition party, represents the most seismic political shift since the formation of the State almost a century ago.

Sinn Féin’s success and potential for the future has never looked so promising.  The old Republican cry, ‘Tiocfaidh Ár Lá’ meaning ‘our day will come’ in Irish, might have been right all along. 

It would be easy to dismiss this shakeup as another example of the rise of populist, anti-establishment politics we have seen across the world over the last decade. However, Irish politics is different; normally more predictable and not as complex as elsewhere in the world. This newfound trajectory of Sinn Féin is unique and unexpected.  

Within recent memory, Sinn Féin has been linked to militant Irish Republicanism, with allegations that the leadership of Sinn Féin and the IRA Army Council were practically one of the same throughout the three-decade-long conflict of The Troubles. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 which marked the end of the Troubles, Sinn Féin has undergone a remarkable transformation. A largely shunned and unpopular party in the Republic of Ireland for many decades went on to win the highest number of first-preference votes in Ireland’s 2020 general election. This result ripped up the centrist political consensus between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael which have held the political reins in Ireland since the 1920s.

In the run-up to February’s general election, Sinn Féin themselves underestimated their support and chose not to stand a full field of candidates, instead focusing on constituencies they thought would return the most support. Following the election and facing a three-way split in the Dáil, it was clear that two of the three largest parties would have to work in coalition together. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil ruled out coalition with Sinn Féin despite the public’s democratic expression of support for them, citing their past IRA links and vastly different political ideologies. 

This left the ‘unthinkable’ option. The main centre-right, rival parties which have dominated Irish politics since independence, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, came together in June to form a fragile coalition propped up by the Greens. As a result, Sinn Féin enters the new Dáil as the main opposition party for the first time and in doing so, breaks the Fine Gael- Fianna Fáil duopoly of the last century of Irish politics. 

A century of transformations

“Sinn Féin has come a long way from its roots as an apologist adjunct for the IRA,” according to Douglas Dalby, former New York Times Ireland Correspondent. “It has transformed itself into an acceptable left-leaning alternative. Moreover, although it has grown, its ethos of discipline set it apart from many other left-wing parties.”

The success of Sinn Féin in February’s election wasn’t the breakthrough of a new political force. From being a splintered and fringed organisation from the end of the Irish War of Independence in the 1920s until the leadership of Gerry Adams in the 1980s, the party has undergone major transformations. Even until 1994, Ireland’s Section 31 Act meant that interviews, reports, or even the voices of Sinn Féin representatives were banned from being broadcast. Their views were not even considered acceptable to allow the electorate to hear, let alone a vote.

While Sinn Féin denies ever having any formal overlap with the IRA, the party oversaw the political campaign of the Troubles, while the IRA took part in armed violence that saw nearly 4,000 people dead and 50,000 injured on all sides by the conflict’s end. Sinn Féin’s inextricable links with the IRA and their alleged connections to armed conflict still remain raw with many voters, something that other parties are keen to accentuate and capitalise on.

In 1997, a year before the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin won just over 2% of the vote in the Republic of Ireland and only one seat in the election of that year. Up until this year’s election, Sinn Féin has never been a popular party in the Republic, and certainly not seen as a realistic or credible candidate for government.

The post-conflict leadership of the party has helped to shake off the image of the bullet and the bomb. Gerry Adams resigned as Sinn Féin President in 2018 after leading the party for 35 years. His successor and current leader, Mary Lou McDonald, hails from middle-class Dublin. These suburbs are a far cry from the working-class Sinn Féin heartlands of West Belfast— the bastion of Gerry Adams. This does not free them from controversy surrounding the IRA, as the leader does not hide her support for the armed struggle of her predecessors. However, McDonald was not involved in the conflict herself, and therefore cannot be judged personally on the legacy of previous leaders. When pressed on the party’s past and their alleged old friends, McDonald simply replies that the “conflict is over, peace restored and people should move on.”

McDonald’s style of leadership is an asset in attracting voters. Her brand of telling it straight and being ‘on the side of the people’ resonates with ordinary voters. The policies she advocates, like better access to childcare and fairer housing, speak directly to the people most affected by years of economic difficulty. 

Truly changed, or the only alternative?

Those still sceptical of Sinn Féin may wonder whether the votes were really cast in their favour, or in exhaustion at the governance of the two centre-right parties which had led through a housing crisis, rising costs of living and austerity. 

Identity politics seems to be more prevalent than ever across the world, but the question of identity and culture is not the only aspect of their image which Sinn Féin has been careful to reconstruct. Money talks, especially to the electorate.

Having spent a career reporting on Ireland, Dalby tells me that the party has always been careful to downplay their socialist credentials or to appear too left-wing. This has helped their acceptability to a largely conservative electorate in Ireland. They also have to keep their large American donors onside, who might be scared off by too much talk of socialism. 

Whilst the party have maintained their traditionally working-class voter base, they are also now attracting more middle class voters. Irish elections run under a proportional representation system which means being an acceptable option for voters is crucial, as transferable votes often determine who wins a seat. Many people who would previously not have considered even putting Sinn Féin on their ballot will now lend them second or third preference votes, with the party’s brand of articulate, fresh, and female leadership appearing voter friendly. 

The new Taoiseach, Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin, called the formation of his new government a “moment of opportunity and hope”. Considering this election was billed as the ‘election for change’, having the party that won the popular vote; the highest percentage vote, and the second-highest number of seats consigned to opposition doesn’t represent a change to many people.

On the new government formation, Pearse Doherty TD, shadow Minister for Finance said the new government was “not the change that people voted for” and added that “I think it would be naive in the extreme to think they [the new government] will change into what the public wanted”. 

Sinn Féin represented a new and different alternative to the kind of bland conservative politics Ireland is used to. Their manifesto of ambitious housing and health reform gave the election a real sense of a different kind of politics.

McDonald’s attitude of looking to the future rather than the past is sometimes overlooked by her critics. 22 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, many commentators see the constant re-connection to the past as a tired argument. Their vote share at the election makes the two main parties seem out of touch with their constant lambasting of Sinn Féin as toxic or even dangerous, whether in terms of their past or their economic and social reforms.

The Civil War legacy

The last century of Irish history and politics is fraught with war and violence and no party can escape the events of the past. Ireland’s main parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, were both born out of the Irish Civil War. A conflict just as brutal as the War of Independence that came before, including barbaric atrocities such as people being strapped to land mines. 

The civil war was fought over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which although granted twenty-six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties political independence, the new Irish Free State would remain a dominion of the UK with the British Monarch as head of state. Six counties in the north of Ireland voted to remain in the United Kingdom as part of the agreement, leading to the partition of Ireland and with it, the creation of Northern Ireland.

Partition of the island, swearing an Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown, and not being granted full Republic status within the terms of the Treaty was anathema to many within the Sinn Féin provisional government in 1922. They split into those who supported and those who opposed its ratification: the pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty factions. The civil war that followed was won by the pro-Treaty side backed by British weaponries, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty prevailed. The island of Ireland was partitioned into the Irish Free State (later to become the Republic of Ireland in 1949) and Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom.  

The pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty groups evolved into Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil respectively, the two parties that went on to dominate the next century of Irish politics. Sinn Féin remained as a fractured and splintered group until the leadership of Gerry Adams in the 1980s. The outbreak of the Troubles in 1969 led to Sinn Féin finding renewed vigour, power and notoriety as the political wing of the IRA to become the infamous face of modern Irish Republicanism.

The legacy of the Civil War prevailed for many decades in the Republic, with continued animosity between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil stemming from this era. Their constant criticism of Sinn Féin’s links with the IRA and a violent past can seem like tired arguments when all major parties in Ireland have their histories rooted in violence and conflict.

A future revolution?

There’s no doubt that the recent journey of Sinn Féin is extraordinary, and all eyes will wait to see if they can repeat the same electoral success— next time standing enough candidates to become the largest party in the Dáil.

The new agreed programme for government is scheduled for a full five-year term. Given the shaky coalition government consists of two rival parties and an overall majority of just four, many commentators are doubtful whether this is sustainable in the longer term. In the meantime, Sinn Féin takes up the mantle as a united opposition. For the first time in Irish history, there’s a new dynamic in the Dáil: a right-left divide between government and opposition.

The old ‘outsiders’ have faced exclusion, criticism in the media, and constant taunting of their past, yet they have built up their support from almost nothing and nowhere. Allowing Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to become indistinguishable in this government allows them to stand at the next election as the only significant alternative. A few years in opposition may be a blessing in disguise. 

Like every country, Covid-19 will push Ireland into a difficult time economically. Although approval ratings of previous Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadker soared after his handling of the pandemic, the economic aftermath is the area Sinn Féin will be able to capitalise on. The government may come to make painful economic decisions, perhaps more so than the last financial crash.

In a country already blighted by stark and growing inequality between its people and regions, challenging times ahead may only serve to exacerbate this. A strong and united opposition in Sinn Féin will wait, ready to present themselves as the remedy to Ireland’s ills at the next opportunity.

February’s election was the most significant result for the party in modern Irish history. A new wave of patriotism has swelled in Ireland— a desire to see a fairer and more equal society; for young people to have the ability to afford a home, and for Ireland to continue on the path of progression. The renewed image of Sinn Féin has earned high support among young voters, particularly in urban areas where the majority of voters now live. Polling showed them as the most popular party amongst 18-24-year-olds. This is the new vision that Sinn Féin hopes to be associated with and drive forward in the future, rather than the overshadow of its dark past. 

As Leader of the Opposition, Mary Lou McDonald will be wary of public displays of strong Republican rhetoric. It’s likely however, that in finding Sinn Féin in this unexpected position, she must be reflecting on the old adage that many Republicans hold dear: Tiocfaidh Ár Lá. Sinn Fein’s day may well come soon— if it hasn’t already.