Sinn Féin’s Surge Portends a Sea Change in Irish Politics

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The IRA’s political arm has officially moved from the fringes of the political landscape to its center. What comes next will be telling.

Irish politics received a much-needed shock after voting ceased and counting began in the Republic of Ireland’s general election yesterday. Sinn Féin, under leader Mary Lou McDonald, topped the national poll, winning just shy of 25 percent of the vote and thus increasing its vote-share from the 2016 general election by more than ten points. Due to Ireland’s proportional-representation system, that share won’t be enough for the party to win a majority of seats and form a government. But it does make the party a powerful force in the coalition-building negotiations to come. No one is more surprised by this turn of events than the members of Sinn Féin themselves. They fielded just 42 candidates in the general election, when at least 80 elected representatives would be needed to form a majority government. They expected any gains in this election to be minor, and not without reason: They had lost seats in the May 2019 local elections, and were hoping simply to hold the line this weekend. Instead, the general election proved the culmination of the party’s decades-long rise to prominence in Irish politics. For most of its history, Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, refused to take seats won in any parliament in Ireland or Britain, because the Irish Republican movement did not recognize either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland as legitimate. In 1986, the party dropped its abstentionist policy in part, deciding to take seats it won in the Republic of Ireland’s parliament (while still abstaining from participation in the U.K.’s parliament). Since then, it has seen its vote-share and its number of seats in Ireland slowly grow, election by election. Its better-than-expected results in 2020 are one more step on that journey to prominence in the politics of the Irish Republic.


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