The rise of Sinn Fein and what the traditional European left can learn from it.
In the 2020 Irish general election, Sinn Fein got their best result, winning the popular vote with 24% of the vote. Such a scenario seemed unthinkable even in 2016 after its then best result of 13%. Scorned and sneered at for years by the Irish media, many didn’t see it coming. Many more struggled to explain the reason. How could a party with so much political baggage in the wake of the troubles inspire what amounted to a youthquake In 2020. for those who were looking it came as no surprise. The reasons are there in plain sight if you want to look.
In the modern European context, Ireland is an electoral anomaly. Unlike in many countries, there was no traditional left-right divide. The 2 major parties Fianna fail and Fine Gael are centre to centre-right. Fianna fail traditionally has moved a bit more depending on which way the wind is blowing. These days they are both typical of a European Conservative or People’s Party. In this context, the left unlike the rest of Europe didn’t exist in any significant form to have a similar decline as on the continent. Irish Labour was the traditional voice on the left but was never more than a coalition partner even in their prime.
The rise of Sinn Fein is also in a modern European context, an anomaly. Ireland is one of the few places that is seeing the left surging instead of declining. Traditional powerhouses like the SPD in Germany are polling as low as 15%. Meanwhile, a party with such a controversial past as Sinn Fein sweeps the popular vote in the country which has never voted left in significant numbers.
I currently live in Austria and one thing I have learned is that the Overton window and accepted norms of society and political discourse vary hugely. Accepted economic and political norms in Austria still carry the hallmarks and imprints of a country largely dominated by the Social Democratic left for decades since 1970. This is changing quickly now as the country has veered to the right, but many fundamental principles remain. In contrast, accepted norms about economic and political discourse in Ireland have been heavily imprinted from the centre to centre-right hegemony which has ruled in one way or another since the foundation of the state. Understanding these perceptions and the context in Ireland is essential to understanding Sinn Fein’s success.
Perhaps no phrase illustrates the centre-right economic bubble in Ireland than “Shinnercomics’’. Also known as Unicorn or Fairytale economics, it has become a simple smear in which to cheaply discredit Sinn Fein’s supposed economic illiteracy. In reality, it only shows the economic illiteracy and small-mindedness of the journalists who pen such phrases. A vague passing knowledge of politics in the vast continent we belong to would make it clear to them that the policies Sinn Fein proposes in their manifesto are largely mildly Centre Left common sense policies most of which have already been tried and implemented successfully often decades ago by many European countries. The 2 main pillars of Sinn Fein’s success, housing and childcare involved plans which are completely standard elsewhere. Paid maternity leave in Ireland is currently 6 months, in Austria, it is 1–3 years. Sinn Fein proposed extending it it to a year, radical? no just good governance. Reducing the cost of childcare by 500 euro a month would put Ireland somewhere in the middle of childcare costs as opposed to the extremely high current cost. A public housing campaign combined with rent controls would put Ireland once again in the European middle. The Irish media would often have the public believe that such outlandish plans are straight out of science fiction.
This ability to Smear left of centre Economic plans and ideas results from the Overton window in Ireland being centre to centre-right. Since the 1960s and further sped up in the Celtic Tiger era in the 1990s. Ireland has adopted a very simple ideology. Coined by Sean Lemass in the 1960s ``A Rising tide lifts all boats’’. This phrase perfectly encapsulates Irish politics accepted norms. It’s politicians’ jobs to foremost ensure maximum economic growth by any means necessary. This will then lead to increased prosperity for all. Essentially a government’s duties are fulfilled if they achieve economic growth. They accept this doctrine throughout the media and any divergence from it leads to accusations of “fairytale economics”
It is in this context of economic orthodoxy that leaves Sinn Fein Cast aside by the respectable media. Ireland has based its economic policy on attracting foreign investment. They must keep the corporate tax as low as possible. Public expenditure must also also kept low. Workers’ rights and conditions must not meet the standards of many European countries if that would interfere with foreign direct investment.
This approach in Ireland has brought many huge positives. It has provided enormous amounts of opportunities and well-paid jobs. The staggering economic growth in the Celtic tiger era enabled Ireland to shed to a large degree the shackles of the Catholic Church. It has brought investment and development. Combined with Ireland’s successful relationship with the E.U. Ireland has seen a drastic increase in overall living standards, purchasing power, and improved infrastructure. But all this growth has not come without cost.
Ireland has become an increasingly centralised and divided country. With more jobs and opportunities increasingly focused in the centres, especially Dublin. Lack of jobs and services in rural Ireland has become so entrenched it’s accepted as normal. With, the economy more and more centred on Dublin and Cork. This combined with decades of neglect in building quality public housing and strong rental laws inevitably has led to a housing shortage and spiraling costs. It has led to a loosening of vital labour laws and a weakening of trade unions. In Austria sectoral collective bargaining covers 98% of all jobs, including the private sector. In modern Ireland, such an approach would be unthinkable. Ireland has prioritised economic growth through foreign direct investment above all else. It has neglected the other fundamentals of good governance like the welfare state and creating stable employment through trade union power and workers’ rights.
It is through this lens that most Ireland’s media judge Politics. If the economy is doing well in terms of growth, that must mean the government is doing a good job. If you are to view politics through this extremely narrow lens, then of course the rise of Sinn Fein comes as a surprise. The economy is growing, which means the current Government is doing well. Why on earth would voters be dissatisfied and disillusioned? The problem with this narrow thinking is obvious. A government’s job is to represent the people they work for. They must strive to create a fair society. This involves investing in a robust welfare state. Excellent public housing and public health aren’t fantasy luxuries. They are the minimum we should expect a good government to deliver. Of course, economic growth is important. But only in the context of improving the lives and well-being of its citizens.
Sinn Fein’s current leader Mary Lou McDonald is as astute or more than any current European leader on the left. She possesses an authenticity and concern for everyday people that, for example, a Keir Starmer for UK Labour or Olaf Scholz for the German SPD lacks. She also possesses an ability to judge the public mood and political nous that Jeremy Corbyn lacked. Neither representative of the flailing European neoliberal left nor the new rising committed socialist left. Her party may be officially socialist. But MacDonald sticks to issues and doesn’t stray or dwell on terms and ideology that most people aren’t interested in. People in Ireland want access to affordable housing, childcare, and want a better health service. Sinn Fein’s campaign in 2020 stuck to these issues that people cared about. It didn’t get lost in the impressive but bloated manifesto of UK Labour in 2019. When you focus on too many things at once, the public loses interest and often just doesn’t believe the plans will ever happen. Sinn Fein’s 2020 campaign bore more similarities with the Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. He focused on that campaign primarily on 3–4 key issues and always stayed on topic. Not getting involved in culture wars or distractions. Sinn Fein in 2020 was the same . Key issues that are widely popular combined with consistent messaging.
Ireland is also an anomaly, as Young and disaffected voters have moved to the left through Sinn Fein. In much of Europe, many traditional left voters have defected to the far right. Parties such as Germany’s AFD she Front National in France have made significant gains among the former base of the left. With an ever-increasing number of people disillusioned with the neoliberal establishment consensus, there is fertile ground for the opportunists of the far-right to take advantage. In Ireland it is different. Disaffected voters have by and large moved left to Sinn Fein primarily but also smaller left parties and Movements like People Before Profit. Unlike the far rights approach in Europe who harnesses economic discontent into blaming migrants instead of the system itself. Sinn Fein has harnessed justified discontent into a positive left of centre programme.
Sinn Fein has also presented themselves as the obvious alternative. Removing the ambiguity of centrist European leaders who leave working voters unsure who represents what. The party and Pearse Doherty in particular have shown a willingness to call out the problems everyday people face. Calling out the insurance industry and in a recent example calling out Bank of Ireland for closing vital rural branches despite having received a bailout from the taxpayer. It is for these reasons in combination with the clear and popular policy proposals that Sinn Fein has gained popularity in areas the traditional European left has lost ground.
The growth and success of the party are even more remarkable considering the unique background. To many voters, especially older ones, Sinn Fein will forever represent the dark history of the troubles in Northern Ireland. For these often understandable reasons many voters in Ireland will simply never vote Sinn Fein whether or not they agree with policies. Yet despite this, the party continues to gain. Especially among young people who are far more concerned with the present than the past. Young voters want a change from the economic and political consensus that has dominated Ireland. In the 1980s the 2 major parties couldn’t collectively receive 80% of the vote. In 2020 that share shrunk to 42%. In the latest opinion poll, Sinn Fein has risen to 29% with Conservative party Fine Gael at 29% as well. Traditional powerhouse Fianna Fail has fallen to 14%. This suggests Ireland is now fully going in the traditional European left-right divide. With Sinn Fein representing the left and Fine Gael the right. Other smaller left parties make up another 15% so if current trajectories continue, then Ireland’s first-ever left majority and Government is only a matter of time.
In Austria, it is the right that is currently normalising the debate. Unlike Sinn Fein, the Social Democrats currently cannot articulate clear and coherent messages and are losing the Argument against the more slick and on message Conservative ÖVP. The left all over Europe can learn a tremendous amount from the clear and on message brand of Politics Sinn Fein have pursued. Derided as populist by the critics who like to somehow imply similarities with Sinn Fein and the European far-right. In reality, it’s politics based simply on the genuine issues people care about. They don’t focus on a vast swathe of niche issues. Good Jobs, health, housing, and affordable child care. Any party that runs on such fundamental rights as those will do well. Sinn Fein is proof of that.