Sinn Féin and political counter-trajectories

MOHAMMED RAWWAS, Opinion Columnist

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On February 8, 2020, the Irish general election was held. Following the disappointing results in the U.K. general election just two months ago, this election was to be an important signpost of the future of politics in the region. And considering the ramifications of Brexit on Ireland, the results of this election would point to which party the populace trusts to deal with a potentially upcoming referendum on the border between Ireland and the U.K.

Prior to this election, the two right-wing parties in Ireland, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, held 47 and 45 seats, respectively, forming a coalition government in order to govern, those 92 seats being greater than the 80 required for a majority. Sinn Féin held 22 seats. After the election, Sinn Féin now holds 37 seats, having received the plurality of the votes. Most importantly, however, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been deprived of their coalition majority, as they now stand at 35 and 38 seats, respectively. It is unlikely that they will be able to form a coalition, considering that most of the other parties that hold seats, such as Green, Labour, Social Democrats and Solidarity-PBP, are all left-of-center parties unlikely to align with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Currently, Sinn Féin is working on creating a coalition government and it seems possible that they will be able to achieve this.

There are a number of reasons that contributed to Sinn Féin’s success. Perhaps most instrumental to Sinn Féin’s success is the failures of the leading Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil coalition to address the issues facing Ireland. By presiding over an austerity regime and catering to the oligarchic class to the detriment of the majority, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil refused to do anything in regards to reducing homelessness in Ireland, scoffing at such proposals to expand public housing as “unrealistic”. Furthermore, following the global 2008 financial crisis, the ramifications of which are still being contended with, people are less likely to blindly accept neoliberal dogma, which is all Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have to offer, both in terms of rhetoric and policy.

Furthermore, the issue of Brexit certainly affected the vote. Since Northern Ireland is in the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom leaving the European Union means that a border would have to be established between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Given the strife history of Ireland, this could prove problematic, to say the least, and could lead to the eruption of violent tensions. The fact that Sinn Féin won a plurality of the vote is a clear indication that the people of Ireland favor reunification with Northern Ireland, rather than the establishing of a border. With Sinn Féin’s influence now both in Northern Ireland and Ireland itself, they have the capacity to preside over whatever process will ensue in regards to the European Union and the establishment of a border. Most likely, this will come down to a referendum, and if the most recent election results are any indication, it seems that Ireland is more in favor of reunifying Ireland than establishing a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. But a vote for Sinn Féin is also a rebuke of Boris Johnson and the Brexit vote itself, considering that it was Brexit that forced Ireland into the difficult position that it now finds itself in.

However, an interesting question does appear, which is how did Sinn Féin manage an electoral victory where Labour in the U.K. failed? Sinn Féin was dealing with many of the same structural issues facing Labour, such as an entrenched mainstream media apparatus that was hell-bent on smearing any leftist movement with patently ridiculous accusations. In the case of Sinn Féin, this clear media bias manifested itself in multiple ways, including in Sinn Féin party leader Mary Lou McDonald originally being left out of the televised national debates, before polls showing Sinn Féin in first place and popular outrage forcing the network to rescind their decision. Yet, despite these structural barriers, Sinn Féin still managed to win a plurality. I don’t think there is a clear answer here, although the dynamic of Brexit certainly has different ramifications for Labour as it did to Sinn Féin. More broadly, however, Sinn Féin managed to orient themselves towards the working class in a way that Labour, despite its well-received Manifesto, was not quite able to.

Finally, with the rise of far-right populism and demagoguery and outright fascism emerging from Brazil to Poland, it is reassuring to see counter-trajectories, as in the case of Ireland. Even moderate social democracy in power is a good bulwark against this rising tide. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come, although fighting back against fascism does not occur without work in local organizing. However, this could be a good sign that if we continue in our organizing efforts, we can bring about a resurgence of the left.