How Sinn Fein’s Rise Is Shaking Up Ireland’s Politics

Rooted in its campaign for a united Ireland, Sinn Fein was long an outsider in politics due to its links with the Irish Republican Army. With the conflict in Northern Ireland largely over since a 1998 peace deal, the movement has reinvented itself to appeal to a new generation of voters. Now, in a historic shift, it has become the biggest party in the north and also leads opinion polls in the Irish Republic to the south. That makes its demand for a referendum on unification harder to ignore.  

The party, whose name means “Ourselves Alone,” was created amid the campaign for Irish home rule at the start of the 20th century. After the Catholic south won its independence from Britain in 1921, Sinn Fein continued to oppose Britain’s hold on the mostly Protestant north. It only began to seriously contest elections south of the border in the 1980s under a strategy known as the “Armalite and the Ballot Box.” (Armalite is a gun manufacturer whose weapons were used by Republican paramilitaries against British security forces). Today, it’s a broadly center-left party that campaigns for higher government spending, better housing and increased taxes on the rich. 

2. What role did it play in the north?

During the conflict known as the Troubles, Sinn Fein was seen widely as the political wing of a Republican movement that also included the Provisional IRA. The fighting was triggered by street protests in 1968 and claimed about 3,500 lives through to the Good Friday Agreement three decades later. Sinn Fein’s leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness helped to negotiate the peace deal and their party joined the region’s new government. 

3. How popular is Sinn Fein today?

It won the most seats in an election in May 2022, overtaking the rival Democratic Unionist Party as the largest group in the Northern Ireland Assembly, known as Stormont. The win put it in a position to choose the region’s first minister for the first time since the Good Friday accord, a major shift in a region historically dominated by Unionist parties loyal to Britain. South of the border in the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein has moved from fringe to mainstream after doubling its vote between 2007 and 2016. In 2020, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail — the two parties that have largely dominated Irish politics since the state’s foundation — had to form a coalition to keep Sinn Fein out of power. The party has sustained its lead in the polls ahead of the next general election to be held by March 2025. 

4. Why the surge in support?

Wrangling over how to keep trade flowing between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic after Britain’s departure from the European Union made the north’s position within the UK a major issue once more, and played to Sinn Fein’s core demand for reunification. Its rival the DUP strongly opposed the Brexit deal that kept Northern Ireland within the EU Customs Union when mainland Britain split away, saying it undermined the region’s position within the UK. The DUP boycotted the Stormont assembly in protest, even though polls suggested most people in Northern Ireland approved of the post-Brexit trading arrangements. Demographics have also helped Sinn Fein in the north. A 2021 census showed that Catholics, who are more likely to vote for nationalist parties, were the biggest religious group there for the first time. In the south, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael’s support for each other since 2016 has allowed Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald to present herself as the only true agent of change. The party is especially popular among younger voters who were hit hardest by an acute housing shortage and have little memory of the Troubles. 

5. What are Sinn Fein’s main policies?

Beside its demand for a referendum on reunifying the island, it’s campaigning in Northern Ireland on a promise to help voters deal with the soaring cost of living. In the Republic, it wants to cut and freeze residential rents and increase government spending on new homes. It plans to abolish property levies, close corporate tax loopholes, ensure the rich contribute more in tax and cut the official age of retirement. 

6. So is reunification on the way?

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, only the British government can call a vote on reunification and it would consider doing so only if it’s likely to pass in the north. There would then need to be a vote in the Republic as well. While Sinn Fein now has the most seats in Stormont, that does not necessarily translate into increased support for a united Ireland: Overall, unionist candidates won more votes than nationalists. A Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, conducted in late 2022, found that 47% would choose to remain in the UK if there were a referendum, compared to 35% who would vote for a united Ireland. 63% of respondents said a united Ireland had been made more likely by Brexit. 

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