Shifting to the Left: The Rise of Sinn Féin in the 2020 Irish General Election by Kennedy Fiorella
Shifting to the Left: The Rise of Sinn Féin in the 2020 Irish General Election
With the rise of far-right populism spreading across Europe, the Republic of Ireland seems to be moving towards the opposite direction, seen by the recent election where the democratic socialist centre-left party, Sinn Féin, won the popular vote. Scholars attest that February 8th, 2020 marks “the end of an era” of the Irish electoral system, in which the “two and a half party system” of Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael is no more (Field, 2020, p. 615). The status of the three political parties “had remained fundamentally unaltered for nearly 80 years” (Gallagher, 2021, p. 193), but in the 2020 election, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael experienced historic electoral loss and Sinn Féin became the most popular party in Ireland, indicating a dramatic structural shift that may reshape the future of the country’s political environment.
Ireland's Progressive Politics: The 2020 Election Results
The 2020 Irish General Election was called on January 14, 2020, to elect the 33rd Dáil Eireann, the lower house of Ireland’s parliamentary system (Elkink & Farrell, 2021, p. 2). The two longstanding centre-right political parties are Fine Gael, led by former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil, led by Michael Martin. The two parties have alternately shared power since the general election of June 1927, with Fine Gael being the most recent governing party (Coulter & Reynolds, 2020, p. 66). The third largest party, Sinn Féin, led by Mary Lou McDonald, won the majority of the popular vote at 24.5%, a significant 10.17% increase from the 2016 election (Field, 2020, p. 624). Irish voters deemed Sinn Féin the most popular party through at 535,595 votes, representing “nearly a quarter of a million new or returning voters for the party”, their best electoral performance since 1922 (Field, 2020, p. 624). Subsequently, the 2020 election was the worst electoral result for Fine Gael since the 1940s with only 22% of the vote, and the second worst electoral outcome for Fianna Fáil ever, at 21% (Coulter & Reynolds, 2020, p. 66). This analysis seeks to identify the cause of Sinn Fein’s success in the February 2020 Irish General Election and the rise of progressive politics in the Republic of Ireland.
"Politics without social bases": Political Ideology in Ireland
The Irish political party system “has long been characterised as ‘politics without social bases’ (Whyte, 1974), owing to the absence of a social or economic base to party support” (Madden, 2020, p. 93). This conceptualization of Irish politics has persisted due to the absence of a clear left-right divide, as the two ideologically similar “dominant centrist” political parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael “competed around a centre-right policy agenda” (Müller & Regan, 2021, p. 1). The emergence of Sinn Féin, a centre-left political party, indicates a dynamic shift to a more “ideologically driven” voter base (Elkink & Farrell, 2021, p. 8). In a study conducted by Müller and Regan, they found that in 2020, “the average Irish voter increasingly self-identifies on the centre-left, and that these same self-identified left voters hold consistent and coherent socio-economic policy preferences” (2021, p. 15). This shift reflects a growing left-right ideological split of the Irish electorate of which Sinn Féin is now seen as “the strongest left alternative” (Coulter & Reynolds, 2020, p. 72). Sinn Féin’s electoral success is a product of this evolving state of Ireland’s electoral base, in conjunction with the rise of progressive people-driven policies that they have supported consistently in the years leading up to the 2020 election.
The Rise of Progressive Politics in Ireland
Ireland’s shift towards progressive politics did not begin with Sinn Féin’s election, rather, the past six years of progressive political action within the country laid the foundation for the emergence of a centre-left voter base. During this time, two progressive referendums passed in the by a significant margin, the Marriage Equality Referendum of 2015 and the Abortion Referendum of 2018. In the Marriage Equality Referendum, “Ireland become the first country in the world to enshrine marriage equality in its written constitution and the first to legalise same-sex marriage through national referendum” (Murphy, 2016, p. 315). The referendum became Ireland’s first symbol of transition from one of the most socially conservative countries in Western Europe to a progressive, diverse state. The referendum had a 60.52% turnout rate, in which 62.07% of voters voted for and 37.93% voted against, and the referendum passed by this substantial margin” (p. 316). Similarly, in May 2018, Irish citizens voted to overturn the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which prohibited abortion in almost all circumstances (Field, 2018, p. 608). Voter turnout for the referendum was 64.13%, “making it the fourth-highest turnout for any referendum in the history of the state”, with it passing by a margin of 66.4% of voters for to 33.6% against (p. 621). The two referendums indicate a significant structural shift away from the conservative, Catholic values of Ireland’s past to acceptance of progressive, more left-leaning social policies. Both referendums passed by significant margins, with a high level of engagement, demonstrating citizens’ drive to integrate more left-leaning, ideologically focused policy in their country. This proves Müller and Regan’s argument, that “Irish voters have been consistently moving to the left for some time, and that this demand-side shift is likely to feed into party competition” (2021, p. 10). Sinn Féin was at the forefront of the campaigns for the referendums (Rea, 2020, p. 20), publicly aligning their party platform in favour of both, thereby situating their voter base in accordance with these left-leaning policies. This need for ideologically driven policy proposals translated to a need for increased non-centrist party representation in the Dáil Eireann that established the new political environment in Ireland.
Advocating for the Centre-Left: Sinn Féin and Social Issues
Furthermore, Sinn Féin’s electoral campaign relied on the integration of centre-left social policies, presenting different approach to economic issues with an emphasis on addressing Ireland’s widespread housing concerns. Since the succession of Mary Lou McDonald from the former leader Gerry Adams in 2018, the party has shifted away from its “historical militancy” and instead has focused on “social and economic issues like homelessness, rising rents, health-care costs, and hospital waiting lists” (Kozikis & Shchepacheva, 2020, p. 3). Specifically, Sinn Féin pinpointed the issues of health and housing as the forefront of their platform, both of which “the outgoing government had had least success in tackling” (White, 2020, p. 268). Housing was the most salient political issue for the past three years leading up to the election, as there was “a severe shortage of housing, with too few properties to buy, particularly at the lower end of the market, and strong upward pressures in the rental sector” (Cunningham & Marsh, 2021, p. 235). Unequal access to housing was thus the central focus of Sinn Féin’s campaign, and subsequently emphasized a “more state-centred approach to the issue, promising substantially more investment than their rivals and also promising to control rents” (Cunningham & Marsh, 2021, p. 237). Through focusing their campaign on the inadequacy of centre-right approaches to housing, Sinn Féin was able to anger the electorate against the “duopoly” of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (Kozikis & Shchepacheva, 2020, p. 3). As a result, “Sinn Féin won more votes among those voters who cited housing as the number one issue facing Ireland than Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil combined” (Müller & Regan, 2021, p. 2). Through integrating centre-left approaches to established economic issues, Sinn Féin addressed the electorate’s need for a new direction in Irish politics, one that isn’t afraid to take innovative policy positions that reflect a centre-left ideological base.
Mobilizing Youth: The Future of Irish Politics
Lastly, the youth vote defined the central focus of the election and indicates the future of Ireland’s political direction. As the largest population group in Ireland as of 2019 are those aged 25 to 44 (Clark, 2020), the fact that Sinn Féin’s political gains came predominately from this age group is significant. Sinn Féin “won more votes among the under 35s than Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil combined” (Müller & Regan, 2021, p. 2), and their core vote “came from strong working-class and youth support on the basis of key socio-economic policies” (Coulter & Reynolds, 2020, p. 72).
Sinn Féin’s integration of centre-left socio-economic policies “appealed to young people” (Little, 2021, p. 717), which translated to electoral success. In addition to sweeping the youth vote, “Sinn Féin rose in all age groups bar the oldest one by between 11 and 15 points, and even among those over 65 support was up by 6 points” and was the largest party in all age groups except 65 and over (Cunningham & Marsh, 2021, p. 227). By addressing longstanding issues that the two central governing parties have been unable to demonstrate success at achieving, Sinn Féin encouraged support across the board of the electorate.
While the Ireland’s exact political future is unclear, it will be sure to include greater electoral support for Sinn Féin and advocacy on behalf of the electorate for the integration of centre-left policies. Although Sinn Féin did not form government, their popular vote success demonstrates the need for political governance that supports left-wing social policy in Ireland. As the average Irish voter now identifies as a centre-left voter, the results of the next Irish General Election will determine if this change has reshaped the Irish political environment permanently.
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