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Mary Lou McDonald could take Sinn Féin into the political mainstream

DUBLIN, IRELAND - FEBRUARY 04: (L-R) Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald participate during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios on February 4, 2020 in Donnybrook, Dublin, Ireland. The Irish general election will take place on February 8. (Photo by Niall Carson - Pool/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Almost alone among EU members, Ireland has been a bastion of political stability, but will a Sinn Féin surge in this weekend’s election change everything? JASON WALSH reports

Mary Lou McDonald, young at 50 years old and known both for her vocal stance on social issues and for rising to the top of her political party seemingly against all odds, pulled off a coup this week.

On Monday, Ireland’s national broadcaster announced that the outspoken Dublin native would be invited to join the televised leaders’ debate alongside the heads of the two parties that have ruled Ireland since independence.

McDonald’s presence alongside these big beasts, Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, is more than just an attempt to boost the ratings with some choreographed discord or gesture to feminism. Instead, it is a sign of changing times: McDonald is the leader of Sinn Féin, the Irish republican political party that was entirely banned from the Irish airwaves from 1971 until 1994 due to its links to the outlawed IRA. Today, in the face of a chronic housing crisis and out-of-control living costs,
Sinn Féin seems set to step into the political mainstream. If change really is in the air, then McDonald is the face of that change.

The question is though, come Saturday’s ballot, just how much change will the Irish vote for? Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar has become a star internationally, thanks in no small part to Brexit, but back home things look less rosy for the man who would like to be Ireland’s answer to Emannuel Macron or Justin Trudeau. A poll last week found a majority of voters want change – and some 37% want a “radical change of direction”. When their pencils hover over the ballot, though, the Irish may well vote for a new party, but they seem set to get more of the same: the country will go to the polls on February 8, and the likely outcome will be a swapping of one centre-right party for another as leader of a minority government.

Opposition Fianna Fáil, led by Micheál Martin, the party in power during the 2008 crisis, has managed to detoxify itself, and is likely to top the polls. But changing Fine Gael for Fianna Fáil would be a curious kind of radical change of direction, being neither radical nor a change of direction. What would be a radical change, however, is a rise for Sinn Féin, and while the party is not fielding enough candidates to lead the next government, there is a hint that winds of change might be about to blow through the country: following the election Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may well face a real opposition for the first time in their history, and that would be an earth-shattering change in a country where neither ideas nor ideology have featured in mainstream politics.

If there is an explanation for the persistence of Ireland’s political twins then it surely the Irish desire for continuity: Fianna Fáil offers a change, and after close to nine years of Fine Gael government many feel a change is due. Just not too much change.

Consider Brexit for a moment: perhaps it will come as a surprise to British readers that Brexit itself is not an election issue in Ireland. The possible economic fallout worries many, but in that regard it merely takes is place in the pantheon of panic alongside an overheated housing market and narrow tax base as a bad omen auguring another crash. The Irish view of Brexit itself was simply one of incredulity, followed by a desire for self-protection.

Having now secured concessions from Britain on the Irish border, effectively pushing it into the sea in the name of expediency, Ireland has, one might say, ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest’, in the matter. Yes, the Irish view Brexit as a pity – one person I to whom spoke recently described it as “a fiasco, and it is a fiasco. Please quote me on that”, and he is far from alone – but that is all.

Brexit demonstrates Ireland’s conservative consensus: all of the parties followed the same policy, differing only on a question of degree – and all wanted continuity. But even if Brexit itself has no role in the poll, it can still illuminate something about the election.

Brexit not Irexit

At the height of Brexit fever, overexcited British commentators, unencumbered by knowledge, champed at the bit to opine on Ireland. In doing so they invariably viewed Irish politics though a British prism, inevitably resulting in a distorted, funhouse mirror image that looked only superficially like reality.

Ireland was not attempting to sabotage Brexit, nor spitefully plotting to annex the fourth green field. Instead, it was simply protecting its own interests, and those interests were widely viewed as being best served by ensuring as little changed as possible.

To a degree the misunderstandings cut both ways. The Irish, it’s true, tend to have a better understanding of the day-to-day goings on in British politics, but that is only natural when your neighbour is a major cultural power and centre of media power.

The Irish do however lack a deep understanding of the more profound themes that animate British life, typically seeing them in terms of cliché or viewed through the prism of our own history with Britain. Certainly, Irish horror at Brexit – more “the weird Brits are off on one again” than anything rooted in anger – speaks to a superficial reading of events. Just as many British seem puzzled that the people of a small trading economy would be happy with the EU, many Irish seem to fail to grasp why those of a large one would not be.

Likewise, some Brits clutched at straws, imagining a return to bosom of Mother England in the emergence of the Irexit Freedom Party, a tiny, unelectable fringe anti-EU party, that got press attention at home only as a clownish distraction that amused journalists. Marginally more level-headed British observers bemoaned that Ireland had lost its famed fighting spirit, perhaps wiping a solitary tear from their eyes as they raised a glass to the Irish EU referendums, in which the people bravely voted down the treaties of Nice and Lisbon.

It was pure nonsense of course. The spirit that animated Irish voters to reject EU treaty change had more in common with that which moved the UK’s Remain voters than those whose pencil crossed the Leave box in 2016. During the referendum campaigns of the 2000s the Irish looked deep into the smithy of their souls and responded, screaming: leave things alone!

There was and is some left-wing euroscepticism in Ireland, and outright horror at the prospect of an EU military, but in the 2000s Ireland was doing well for, well, almost the first time in hundreds of years. Upsetting the applecart, by expanding the EU in the case of Nice, or… whatever it is that Lisbon is about? No thanks.

What there is not is any chafing at Brussels. For a start, having been ruled from London, the Irish view the EU as a vital bulwark against boisterous British Blimpery: a seat at the table as one among equals, which is to say, precisely what the Irish never experienced under Britain. More pertinently today, though, the EU has, on the whole, been a success for Ireland: single market access is vital for the economy, and without it Ireland and its foreign-direct investment (FDI) led economy would plunge into an endless recession.

A lamentable way to structure an economy, doubtless, but a difficult one to fix. And so, the Irish desire to keep the wheels on the cart trumps everything else because memories of extreme poverty are just too recent: think not of the famine of the 1840s, but the dreary crises of the 1980s and early 1990s.

If was for this reason that the Irish swallowed the EU, IMF and European Central Bank’s particularly unpalatable so-called ‘bailout’ medicine after the 2008 crash. More a bailout for banks than the country, private debt was nationalised. It worked. As long as you look at the macro economic picture, that is: unemployment went down from more than 13% in 2010 to under 5% today.

It also beggared an entire generation – anecdotally, among my friends, only one has a mortgage, and none rents an apartment on their own. Potholes reappeared on the roads and the already-creaking hospitals cracked as public investment cratered. Today, post-recovery, the prospects are dismal for anyone working outside technology, finance and pharmaceuticals. In short, FDI has created an economic island on the island of Ireland. I, like most of my friends, fled. Between 2008 and 2018, more than 350,000 emigrated. A full 17% of those born in Ireland live overseas.

There may be little love for the EU in Ireland – the idea that there was any love for it anywhere seemed comic before the Brexit vote – but they do like it, thank-you-very-much, and certainly hatred of it is found only among the unelectable fringe of the very-online right, or the far-left mullets who present themselves as neutral on the topic but not-terribly-secretly oppose it.

The fact is that there is a deep seam of conservatism running through Irish life. It was there when the country was politically conservative and dominated by the institutions of the Catholic church, and it remains there now that the consensus is thoroughly liberal, in both the social and economic senses.

Seemingly surprise moves, like voting to support same-sex marriage and abortion, and the passage of gender recognition-by-self-declaration legislation, were in fact the result of decades-long campaigns invisible outside the country, as well as the gradual liberalisation experienced in any country exposed to the force of global markets. And, let’s face it, holding socially liberal views isn’t exactly going against the grain today.

The republican question

The big question of the 2020 general election is that of Sinn Féin. Left-wing, republican, belatedly pro-European and unashamedly populist, the party is hoping to make the significant political breakthrough it failed to achieve following the 2008 recession.

Certainly, the numbers are striking: one recent poll put it at 21%, just two points behind the incumbent Fine Gael with 23, and four points behind favourites Fianna Fáil at 25. Another saw it tie for first place with Fianna Fáil at 24.

The fact that Sinn Féin did not previously make its big breakthrough in 2008 is worth considering. If ever there was a time when a radical republican party with a straight left-labourist agenda should have triumphed it was following a dramatic global crash that saw bankers bailed out while ordinary people suffered.

Indeed, Ireland’s fragmented far-left led a successful anti-water tax campaign and powerful, though ultimately unsuccessful, campaigns against a new universal, non-progressive additional income tax and the introduction of property taxes, all of which were levied in order to patch up the hole in blown in the country’s public finances by failures of private capital. And yet Sinn Féin stagnated.

Most put this down to the party’s links to the IRA, and other politicians are never shy about denouncing Sinn Féin as a “not normal” party, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently put it.

Better the devil you know is a good sales pitch in Ireland, and an easy one to make when Sinn Féin is polling well – but does it work with those under 45?

The stench of the IRA won’t hang around Sinn Féin forever. In fact, it’s curious that it has hung around so long, no doubt aided not only by the Irish establishment continually beating the drum on the issue, but also by the missteps of Irish republicans themselves, from the 2004 Northern Bank robbery, widely blamed on the organisation, onwards.

It is worth remembering that every major Irish political party other than the Greens is descended in some way from Sinn Féin. Even Labour merged with a Sinn Féin splinter, the Workers’ Party, in the 1990s.

A few elections back, I was speaking to someone born in humble circumstances who had done very well for himself, living in a house that I could only dream of, located in one of the few burghs of Dublin that I would consider living in (though it would surely not consider me). I asked him about his voting intentions. He was going to vote for Sinn Féin, he said. Puzzled, I asked why.

“To slap it into the rich c***s,” he said.

“To slap it into yourself?” I replied.

Perhaps it is a mistake to see Sinn Féin as a left-wing party, though; at least in Irish terms: in Ireland we regularly elect Trotskyists to parliament (see, I told you Ireland wasn’t like Britain), so it’s not that the left is unelectable, just that it, divided into five parties and countless independents, is too fragmented to govern while, between them, the big two centre-right parties hoover up close to 50% of votes.

Just as the party is shedding its IRA connections – the leadership today, north and south, is young(-ish), female and has clean hands – it may also tamp down the social radicalism, too. Certainly, that was the path trod by previous incarnations of Sinn Féin, be that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in the 1930s or the Workers’ Party in the 1990s. In Northern Ireland Sinn Féin has long been accused of centrist drift, though the accusation seems premature.

For the moment Sinn Féin senses votes are to be had in radicalism, particularly with young voters locked out of the housing market and for whom the IRA is ancient history. How many votes remains to be seen, but widespread revulsion at the spectre of street homelessness, a full-blown housing crisis and hospitals jammed with people sleeping in corridors has combined with a pervasive, free-floating sense of impending doom. And yet, despite this, a left victory in February is close to impossible.

Sinn Féín may yet surprise us all, topping the poll or at least garnering enough support to keep Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil out of power, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The previous two elections saw the party predicted to rise, but it remained stubbornly stuck at under 15%. If it does achieve 20% it will have done well and could be on its way to government in another five years, but Fianna Fáil will likely tally the most votes, being the easy not-Fine Gael option.

Still, rehabilitated or not, the image of property developers and bankers flying around in helicopters shortly before the economy crashed must surely give some potential Fianna Fáil voters pause for reflection.

If Sinn Féin’s day does come, this month or five years hence, it will be because, between them the eternal duopoly of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have created a country that just can’t keep on keepin’ on – and keeping on keepin’ on is all the Irish have ever voted for since independence.

As the old saw goes: parties don’t win elections; governments lose them.

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