Last May saw an electoral drubbing for Sinn Fein in the Irish Republic. In the Euro Elections, just one Sinn Fein MEP was returned, compared to three last time. In the local elections the same day, Sinn Fein lost nearly half its councillors – it made net losses of 78, ending up holding just 81. Yet recent opinion polls point to a dramatic change in fortune, as the Irish prepare for a General Election on Saturday. There was a survey published by the Irish Times this morning which put Sinn Fein in the lead:
“Sinn Féin has surged into first place in the general election race, with a quarter of all likely voters now saying they intend to vote for the party, according to the final Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll of the campaign.
“The poll puts Fine Gael back in third place at 20 per cent, behind Fianna Fáil on 23 per cent and Sinn Féin on 25 per cent.
“The findings of the poll, which was taken on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of last week, will shock the Government party and suggest that Ireland is on the brink of an historic general election result on Saturday.
This does not mean that Sinn Fein will be running the country. Ireland uses the Single Transferable Vote electoral system, not first past the post. It is not even likely that Sinn Fein will end up in coalition. The Irish Times report adds:
“However, Fianna Fáil remains the most popular choice for government, with more voters expressing a preference for a coalition government involving that party than any other, while Sinn Féin is the party that the highest number of voters do not want to see in government.
“In addition, Sinn Féin is limited by running by running just 42 candidates in 38 constituencies and is unlikely – even on these figures – to be the largest party in the next Dáil.”
That still leaves the puzzle of why Sinn Fein has advanced so far. It is an extremist outfit, tarnished by its support for terrorism for decades – a stance it has still not repented. A clue to its wider allegiance is that it is part of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left, which means it sits alongside assorted Portugese, Czech, and German Communists in the European Parliament. It is likely that Sinn Fein’s funding has indirectly come from an IRA bank raid in 2004.
On the other hand, should we be shocked? Over ten million British people voted for Labour in December. I know they lost but that is still a lot of votes. That was despite the Party being led by Jeremy Corbyn whose long-standing support for Sinn Fein / the IRA was well established. Last month we saw the restoration of power-sharing arrangements in the Northern Ireland Executive. It was generally regarded as good news. As a result, Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein is the Deputy First Minister. Her Party colleague, Conor Murphy, has the finance portfolio. He served five years in prison for possession of weapons and membership of the Provisional IRA. Yet the Democratic Unionists work alongside them.
But when we look further at the latest polling, we see another mystery. Fine Gael is in third place. Its leader is Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister. (The British media usually refer to him as the “taoiseach”. Why do they not call Angela Merkel the “Kanzler”?) Those of us attempting to make sense of the Brexit machinations felt that Varadkar played a blinder. He played up his populist anti-British rhetoric. He also managed to get a lot of EU focus on Irish grievances (whether real or imagined) about border arrangements.
Then there is the economy. The success of the “Celtic Tiger” is absolutely world class. In 2018 it grew by 8.2 per cent. A low rate of Corporation Tax has attracted investment. There is a budget surplus. Perhaps there is some complacency, that it can be taken for granted. Yet Ireland was badly hit by the international financial crash of 2008. Varadkar says:
“One of the earliest recorded examples of economic strategising appears in the very first book of the Bible. Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, was able to predict the trajectory of Egypt’s economy – a period of boom, followed by a period of bust. Forewarned, he was forearmed, and he was able to guide the country through the worst of the crisis, saving his own people as a result.”
Sinn Fein’s increased support is considered to partly derive from Irish discontent over housing. Incomes have risen, but house prices have risen faster – leaving young people “locked out” of homeownership and angered at rent increases. Inward migration has increased the pressure. Sinn Fein promises to “introduce legislation to reduce rents by up to €1,500 a year, via a refundable tax credit, and freeze them for three years” and to “build 100,000 homes over 5 years. This will include council housing and affordable homes for renters and first time buyers.” Rent controls have proved harmful where-ever they have been tried. Yet the idea has a natural attraction to those annoyed by how high rent is. The real answer, of course, is to increase supply by easing planning restrictions. But some are resistant to development, fearing it will be ugly. These issues are familiar to those of us on the other side of the Irish Sea.
Another grievance concerns health care, due to overcrowding. Capacity has not kept up with the increased population. Ireland has a mixed public sector/private sector system. Some are entitled to free treatment, others have to pay. Sinn Fein proposes free GP care and 1,500 more beds. Nearly half of Irish people have private health insurance. Sinn Fein wants to put a stop to it – which would greatly increase pressure on the system that is already struggling.
What about Fianna Fáil? They have also made spending pledges and challenged Fine Gael’s record. But Sinn Fein can argue that Fianna Fáil isn’t a real opposition – as they have sustained the Fine Gael with a “confidence and supply” arrangement.
Fine Gael is even more on the defensive. They can point out that health spending has already increased, but as the resulting improvements in output have been marginal this is not much of a boast.
Durng the Second World War the IRA backed Nazi Germany. This was on the maxim: “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.” It now seems that Irish complacency is Sinn Fein’s opportunity
The Irish should be proud of their achievements. Economic progress has been dramatic. That broadens out into wider achievements. Life expectancy has increased faster there than anywhere else in Europe – which put complaints about health care into some perspective. Yet it is difficult to find any of the political parties very inspiring. There is a duty though, to vote for one of the democratic parties to secure the defeat of Sinn Fein. There have been some powerful pleas to voters by the relatives of victims of the IRA. Let us hope they are listened to.