Irish Futures

As huge swathes of British media struggle to understand either the forces behind the rise of Sinn Féin (or even the electoral system itself), we try and make sense of the election by listening to Irish accounts of the vote. 

To get a sense of the scale of the result, Sinn Féin in 2020 is the first party in almost a century other than Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael to win the popular vote in an Irish General Election. That’s a seismic result with consequences for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Britain and the Union and accelerate the process of moves towards re-unification. The idea that Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael can exclude Sinn Féin from government (as they had campaigned promising to do) seems unlikely given that they won the popular vote.

For years voting for Sinn Féin would be thought of as taboo for many people, so what happened?

  1. The Repeal and marriage equality referendums (on gay marriage and access to abortion) have triggered a re-politicisation of the country infusing it with a sense of “change is possible”.
  2. Many British commentators have framed the Irish election as a response to Brexit, yet it rated very low in peoples actual concerns. The result seems to have come from a mixture of idealism, renewed Irish nationalism and a housing crisis that the old guard of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael are implicated with.
  3. The demographics of age and gender have also played a part. The traditional dominance of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has been swept away by a huge Sinn Féin youth vote. It’s true that Sinn Féin topped the polls in every age group except the over 65s, so it’s not just a youth vote. Ireland is the youngest country in Europe. It may be that a younger generation that have no lived experience of the Troubles and are more distant from the visceral connection between Sinn Féin and armed struggle.
  4. The changing landscape of Irish politics also has a gender aspect. The “decontamination” of Sinn Féin has been helped by having a women as leader. Jennifer O’Connell has written in the Irish Times: “It was almost always “Mary Lou”, rather than Sinn Féin. She became the party brand, in a way that neither Leo Varadkar nor Micheál Martin were. Kathleen Chambers, a student in NCAD, described how McDonald had made it acceptable to support Sinn Féin: “I wouldn’t associate Sinn Féin with the IRA or the Troubles [now] as much as I would have when Gerry Adams was their leader.”
  5. Finally – access to health care and the housing crisis that disproportionately affects the young were major factors. Commentator and podcaster Naomi O’Leary has said: “It’s all about the housing crisis: why huge rents, shortages of homes and record homelessness was the main factor behind Sinn Féin’s rise.” It’s interesting to think how establishment parties in Scotland are protected by the constitutional question, because the housing crisis here is getting no attention and there will be a reckoning some day for some of them.

Myths of Populism

English nationalism and anti-Irish sentiment expressed throughout the Brexit negotiations may have been a backdrop to the Irish general election but to suggest that this poll was “about Brexit” is itself anglo-centric.

The lazy analysis that this is another manifestation of “populism” is also off the mark:


If its unclear who will form a government, it’s also unclear what the immediate constitutional implications are for Ireland. What is clear is that the old hegemony of two-party Irish politics is broken.

Listen to Naomi O’ Leary and Tim McInerney on the Irish Passport podcast for more analysis here:

The election that changed history

Comments (38)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    This should be seen, also, in the context of the UK GE in December, 2019, when, for the first time since Partition in 1922, non-unionist parties in Northern Ireland took both the largest share of the vote and, despite the institutional gerrymandering, the majority of seats. This followed from NI voting 55/45 to Remain in the EU in the 2016 Referendum.

  2. Rab says:

    This actually concerns me slightly. It’s good for Irish re-unification but I fear, bad for Scotland.
    If Ulster Scots and the bigot brigade feel they can’t stop it, what’s to stop them flowing into the west of Scotland to protect their place in the union?

    I’m just not confident they will stay in NI. They could tip the balance in any future indyref.

    I hope I’m wrong.

    1. I’d read it in a different way Rab – if NI ‘goes’ then the whole pack of cards dissolves …

      1. Jo says:


        I think your response there is extremely naive. I mean no disrespect, really, but those who view this development, and reunification, in a romantic sense, especially in Scotland, should know better.

        My understanding is that this result was about the Irish Health Service, Housing and very domestic issues. As you rightly say, Brexit wasn’t mentioned, but nor was reunification. So people need to settle down a bit.

        As for suggesting that sweet Mary Lou brings a gentler side to Sinn Fein because she’s a woman…. well, I’m flabbergasted by that. I have a long memory about the role many of the fairer sex were prepared to play for the cause in the past.

        And in case anyone suspects my position is rooted in tribalism, I’m of Irish descent and also catholic. But first and foremost I’m Scottish and I want to see an independent Scotland.

        I think we should keep our noses out of Irish affairs. For, frankly, seeing some pro-independence bloggers outside of Bella beating the drum for Sinn Fein in recent days and months, I wondered about their commitment to bringing NO voters over to YES. Because I really can’t see how they think that can work.

        1. Hi Jo

          I’m not sure what I said that was naive? All I did was research the movements and demographics that might have influenced the vote – based on listening to colleagues in Ireland – and report it?
          As I said the main drivers were health and housing.

          I didn’t say that Mary Lou brings a gentler side to Sinn Fein because she’s a woman. I reported what others have said – that is that the party being led by a woman makes it easier for people to disassociate the party from its armed struggle past, because the male leadership were so inextricably connected to the IRA. This seems reasonable does it not?

          It is not romantic to think that the re-unification of Ireland – were it to happen – would have an impact on the wider constitutional question in Britain, is it?

          1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

            I agree with your final statement, Mr Small. It is for the people who live on the island of Ireland to decide their own future, and if they decide that it is as a united country, separate from the United Kingdom and a member of the EU, then a part of ‘the precious union’ will be gone and it will have gone relatively peacefully. I think that this will raise questions in the minds of some lukewarm ‘unionists’, who are somewhat hesitant about change.

            I suspect, too, that this will have a negative impact on the economy of Scotland.

            While the move from NO to YES might not be a huge number, it might be enough to turn the current fuzzy, narrow majority for YES into something a bit more marked.

        2. Stranraer Observer says:

          I agree with Jo. Among some supporters of Scottish independence there seems to be an element of romanticism about the IRA. We only need to have seen the hooligans of the New IRA on the News this afternoon, following the arrest of Paul McIntyre, to see parallels with Britain First and the EDL. These guys are not freedom fighters but violent gangsters.

          Obviously this doesn’t mean that SF in Dublin are still committed to armed struggle but it wasn’t a great look when they celebrated their 24.5% with a rousing chorus of “Come Out You Black & Tans.” It’s a great rebel song, certainly, but there’s a time and a place for singing “Tell her how the IRA made you run like Hell away” and that time is the middle of the night when no-one is listening.

          Wasn’t it only last year that an SF councillor celebrated the anniversary of the Kingsmill Massacre by posing with a loaf of bread on his stupid head? These are not the kind of folk we need as friends or comrades.

          1. Stranraer Observer says:

            Sorry, everyone. Barry McElduff was actually MP for West Tyrone. He said afterward that he had not meant to insult the victims of what was a terrible sectarian mass murder but failed to explain just why he videoed himself posing with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on top of his head on the anniversary of the massacre.

    2. Gray says:

      I share your concerns Rab.
      There has never been in any doubt in my mind that if Ireland is unified a substantial number of rabid unionists will see the west of Scotland as their natural home rather than being part of a catholic Irish republic. And the last thing we need in Scotland is more unionist bigots.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        While some m dyed-in-the-wool Unionists might decide to move to the West of Scotland, I think the number will be relatively small. Although many will have relatives in Scotland, most will have family, businesses, friendships, employment in the North of Ireland and will remain. In addition, as we saw from the 2016 referendum, there was a Remain vote in some traditionally loyalist areas. Given the ‘deal’ which the Conservative government has agreed, NI will remain in the EU customs union and single market and this will continue to provide prosperity to the north of Ireland. I suspect, too, that the ‘ultra-loyalist’ mindset has an age dimension, too. Finally, I think that, since the Good Friday Agreement many i the North have been enjoying 20+ years of peace.

        1. David Allan says:

          An “ age dimension” are you having a laugh they perpetuate their sectarian bigotry from one generation to the next. It’s the Orange Order and 1690 was good few generations back. Of course they’ll flood over here.
          And their Scottish / Ulster pals will encourage and welcome them to these shores.
          Doubt that. Then you need to get out more and observe weekend street life in the West of Scotland.

          1. Gashty McGonnard says:

            I’m sorry, but the othering and objectification of Ulster unionists by Scottish pro-Independence people must stop. It’s horribly racist, and wrong-minded.

            There are a very small number of dogmatically pro-monarchy and pro-union people within the “Unionist” community in Ulster. The majority in that rather nebulous community just want an opportunity to prosper. They have all the same positive and negative aspects of the Presbyterian worldview that we do. There’s no more to fear from an immigrant from Ballymena than from one from Warsaw: ie nothing.

            I say that as a Scot with ancestors from both sides of the Ulster ‘divide’

  3. Josef Ó Luain says:

    The mid-numbing incompetence and total acquiescence to the interests of the bond holders and the bankers shown on the part of Fianna Fail in 2008, hasn’t been forgotten or forgiven.

    The recent constitutional revolutions along with the ascendancy of Mary Lou McDonald, not to mention the business-as-usual, conservative orthodoxy of Varadker’s Fianna Gael have all gone to create this most perfect of political storms. Don’t expect the UK MSM to grasp too much of this, obsessed as they’re likely to remain with Sinn Fein’s past.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      I wonder, too, how the UK Labour Party will respond to this.

      Mr Corbyn is a strong supporter of the right of the people of Ireland to determine their own future and many of those who joined the Labour Party because of Mr Corbyn are still in the Labour Party. Since the majority of the Momentum group are in England, their knowledge of the rest of the UK is patchy, but, nevertheless, most of them are sympathetic to ideas of self-determination.

      I suspect that Ms Long-Bailey is probably of this view and now that Ms Thornberry has atoned – fairly sincerely, I thought – for her intemperate, ‘I hate the SNP’ remark, she, too, might be sympathetic, since the ‘sister party’ SDLP is a republican and united Ireland Party. Given Ms Nandy’s ignorant remarks about how the Spanish Government (and ‘socialists’) dealt with Catalan ‘separatists’ and her view that Scottish politicians should not be invited on to ‘national’ (sic) programmes, then I suspect she will be in the ‘no sympathy for the IRA murderers’ camp. Mr Starmer? Who knows? He is being fairly anodyne about everything and anyone who has accepted a knighthood is a not a rocker of the boat.

      I suspect that this could be a further hole in Labour’s solidarity. Probably not a fatal one, but another crack.

      1. Josef Ó Luain says:

        Hi Alasdair, no smart arsery intended here on my part: The SDLP wouldn’t describe itself or its constituency as being “republican” , that’s because the word has far too many connotations in the North and anyway belongs to Sinn Fein and its constituency. The SDLP would describe itself as being “Nationalist” (a crucial distinction) and in common with SF, yes: pro Irish re-unification.

        1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          I bow to your superior and definitely not smart-arsed knowledge, Josef. I knew I had the wrong adjective when I wrote it, but could not bring the other word to mind. Apologies.

  4. Welsh Sion says:

    The National Party is in power in Scotland. (Previous election: Landslide).

    The National-reunification Party is in the ascendancy in both the Republic of Ireland and the North. (Previous elections: Massive swings towards it).

    The British National-Separatist Party is in power in England. (Previous election: Landslide).

    Guess who’s bringing up the rear.

    Strong and stable ‘Union’, anyone?

    1. William Davison says:

      There was no massive swing in the north to the “National Reunification” Party,” i.e. Sinn Fein. At the recent General Election their vote in Northern Ireland fell by 6.7%, the D.U.P.’s by 5.4%, that’s why they were both so anxious to resurrect the Assembly and Executive, they didn’t want to face an election.

  5. Daniel Raphael says:

    Excellent analysis and information–passing it along to the usual suspects.

  6. Ronald AlexanderMcDonald says:

    I can only imagine the private conversations between Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson.

    Perhaps one of them went this way.

    Johnson: Well Leo there’s going to have to be a poll on Irish reunification. We won’t stand in the way.

    Varadkar: I bet you won’t. N Ireland is a problem created by you Brits. It’s your mess, you sort it out

    Johnson: Do you have any suggestions?

    Varadkar: You pay the 9 billion euros a year cost and deal with the Orange Order headcases.

    Johnson: Well, er, er, er.

    Varadkar: I thought as much. Let’s deal with Brexit.

    Johnson. Oh shit! OK then.

    Politics can create strange bedfellows. It may that be one is about to develop (very privately) between Sein Fein and the Conservative and Unionist Party.

  7. florian albert says:

    Sinn Fein has had an excellent result but a bit of caution is needed. Sinn Fein got fewer (first preference) votes, 24.5%, than the Tories did in Scotland in December 2019, 25.1%.
    Sinn Fein looks to have two alternatives, each has huge risks. (1) Go into coalition with Fianna Fail as junior partner. This might be called the Nick Clegg option.
    (2) Avoid government. The risk here is that Fianna Fail – a more pragmatic party than the Tories ever were – will take steps to deal with the housing and healthcare crises. If they do that, they – not Sinn Fein – are likely to be rewarded politically.

    Leo Varadkar, like Theresa May in 2017, wanted the election to be fought on constitutional issues. As Mike Small points out, the voters thought otherwise. This might be a cautionary tale for the SNP in advance of the 2021 Holyrood election.

    1. Its a good point your raise about the percentage share of the vote compared to the Scottish Tories. The difference is that this gives SF a bargaining chip to enter government – something that will never be experienced by the Scottish Conservatives.

      Secondly, Sinn Feinn have come from relative obscurity (in the Republic) and smashed the two-party tradition.

      1. Jell says:

        SF lead overall having most 1st preference votes and being level on seats, not FF as the British media would have it. That is because ‘Fianna Fáil’s Seán Ó Fearghaíl was re-elected without contest as Ceann Comhairle, (chairman), both of the top two parties essentially won the same number of seats’.

  8. Hamish100 says:

    Varadker’s Fianna Gael Did a deal with the right wing Boris Johnson’s Tory party. Poison chalice. Can’t say I found him a great friend of Scotland in his comments either.

  9. w.b. robertson says:

    To my mind, Florian Albert`s analysis (see above) hits the spot. The punters, outwith the zealots, tend to vote on bread and butter issues. Not on high flying constitutional matters. As a study of most revolutions in recent world history would suggest. Any time I have raised the question of a united Ireland with Dublin friends their eyes have glazed over.

    1. I’m not sure that anyone who votes for constitutional change is a zealot (?)

  10. Richard Easson says:

    So will we cancel the printing of the passports again , or maybe think about English. Welsh and Scottish ones to save money in (the near?) future?

  11. James Paterson says:

    The Irish Passport podcast is absolutely brilliant. It is a very clear explanation of the origins and policies of the main Irish parties as well as a guide to the historic results which are unfolding in Ireland today. It explains the main problems which have influenced voters (Housing) and shows that SF have huge leads with every age group except the over 65s (Sound familiar?) The only puzzling thing (to an outsider) is that they did not explain was why SF put up only about 40 candidates when there are 160 members of the Dail. It is quite long at 42 minutes but really worth it.

    1. Hi James – apparently this was due to poor results in local elections last year – and the party had to make a judgement call on how many candidates to stand.

  12. Hamish100 says:

    bread and butter issues.

    The only way for us to stop the austerity cuts on the poor and infirm is a constitutional issue. Independence. This is something many labour voters still have not grasped. They believe tory unionism will deliver rather than taking decisions for ourselves.

  13. Douglas Robertson says:

    The housing issue in Ireland is a major issue, and has a long complex history given that housing was originally concieved of as welfare in the early days of the Free State. Michelle Norris from UCD provides a useful overview here.

  14. SleepingDog says:

    On issues not specifically Irish, it would seem that the rise of the Green Party might be worth a mention. Well, I guess we’ll see. I suppose when politics gets exciting the real political journalists are keen to deep dive into the analysis. While imperial hacks are disturbed by any suggestion that the status quo is unpopular, and resort to sniping from behind cover.

  15. William Davison says:

    I’ve just listened to an interesting debate on R.T.E. radio involving Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein and Jim O’Callaghan, a Dublin Fianna Fail T.D.. Doherty has been appointed by Mary Lou McDonald to negotiate with other parties re a coalition, these parties being those whose policies are most closely aligned to S.F., i.e. the Social Democrats, Labour, the Greens, People Before Profit and 8 left wing independents. This would bring the S.F.-led coalition up to 74 seats. O’Callaghan made it very clear that Fianna Fail would not go into coalition with S.F. , saying that as S.F. had won the election the ball was in their court and the onus was on them to form a government with like-minded people. He wasn’t asked if F.F. would go into a coalition with Fine Gael in the event of S.F. failing to agree a programme of government with their erstwhile partners. Doherty cited the issues of housing, health and climate change as the main drivers of S.F’s success, Irish unity being tacked on as a kind of afterthought. This would confirm interviews with mainly young first-time Sinn Fein voters, who cited the latter issues, while failing to mention a United Ireland as a priority. I live in Northern Ireland and am told by my nephews who work in I.T. in Belfast that many people from here who went to work in Dublin are returning to escape the astronomical rents and house property prices down there, 7-800 Euros per month to rent a room in a house, 350,000 Euros to buy a studio flat.. As S.F. are promising to freeze rents and build more houses, it’s easy to see why many people are having a punt on them. What have they got to lose?
    P.S. Note to Alasdair MacDonald. There has been no “institutional gerrymandering” in Northern Ireland for almost half a century now, following the end of the old Stormont parliament in 1972 and the reform of local government at the same time.

    1. Jo says:

      Interesting, William.

      I’ve been reading different comment across the media. Reunification was apparently not in the SF manifesto although they’re looking for a referendum within five years.

      The situation is different on the other side of the border with regards to a referendum. That decision would only be made if the Secretary of State believed a majority was in favour.

      Interesting times.

    2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Thanks, for this, William.

      My comment regarding ‘gerrymandering’ really related to the Westminster constituencies, where, it seemed to me looking at the north of Ireland from the West of Scotland, that the DUP ‘votes per seat’ ratio indicated a favourable drawing of constituency boundaries. If that is now more equitable, than it is a further indicator that attitudes are changing significantly. When I was last in Belfast (July 2018), although some of the old worrying indicators were still around, I got a pretty strong feeling that people in the city had grown used to a long period without serious ‘troubles’.

      PS I thought Belfast was the tidiest city I have ever seen in Europe, in terms of a noticeable absence of litter on the streets. I reckon it was better than those of Scandinavian or Swiss towns and cities.

      1. David Allan says:

        Alasdair – did you see many bins in tidy Belfast? A legacy from troubles nothing suspicious left lying around.

    3. MBC says:

      Rents in Edinburgh aren’t much less. £625 pcm to rent a room in a flat in my stair.

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