Elaine and I met in a café in Finglas, a north-western suburb of Dublin. “People are just sick of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil at the moment,” she said. Fine Gael, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s centre-right party, is on the way out after two terms in government, while its main rival, Fianna Fáil, also on the centre right, remains damaged by the 2008 crash, during which it was in government. “The pensions, the homelessness, hospitals, roads, health, all of it,” Elaine, a 33-year-old mum, continued. “People want to see somebody new in [government] so they can do something completely different.”
The café, full of older women, young mums and toddlers, was hosting a coffee morning for a well-liked Fine Gael member of parliament (TD), Noel Rock. He laughed as he shared “Noel Rocky Roads” baked especially for the occasion, and posed for pictures with an actor from the TV comedy Mrs Brown’s Boys, who, rather mystifyingly, had come to support him. But beneath his laughter, Rock must have been aware of the widespread expectation that he will lose his seat in the election on 8 February.
Elaine is voting Sinn Féin or independent. “I probably will vote Sinn Féin,” said her friend Emma, rocking her toddler in his buggy, “because of all the homelessness that’s going on at the moment.”
This is the story of the Irish general election campaign of 2020. Fianna Fáil has replaced Fine Gael as the party on course to win the most seats, but the intrigue is elsewhere. (The two parties emerged as a result of a split in the old Sinn Féin over the treaty that ended the War of Independence in 1921.) Voters, especially young people, are tiring of the hegemony of the two main parties, between which power has alternated since the creation of the Irish Free State nearly a century ago. Many are moving to a left-wing alternative: Sinn Féin, most familiar to British readers as one half of the power-sharing governing executive in Northern Ireland, and as the former political wing of the IRA.
Sinn Féin is surging. A poll released on 3 February indicated that it had not only overtaken Varadkar’s party, but was the front-runner on 25 per cent, ahead of Fianna Fáil.
Sinn Féin, which is only standing 42 candidates in a 160-seat parliament, cannot win a majority, but could hold the balance of power. Varadkar and Micheál Martin, the Fianna Fáil leader, have both ruled out a coalition with Sinn Féin. “It’s not a normal political party,” Varadkar has said.
If the trend is borne out on polling day, this election carries the potential to restructure the political landscape of the Republic of Ireland, while a heated debate grows as to whether Sinn Féin is even a legitimate potential party of government. This is not a “normal” Irish election.
To some, particularly older voters, the idea of a Sinn Féin surge in the Republic is unconscionable, and deeply painful. “Jean McConville,” one older voter said simply, shaking his head. McConville was one of “the Disappeared”, a Catholic convert and widow from Belfast who was murdered and secretly buried by the IRA in 1972, orphaning her ten children. Her case is one of the saddest and most high-profile of the Troubles. Agnes McConville spoke to a BBC documentary in 2013 about hearing her mother’s squeals as she was bundled into the back of a van and taken to be murdered. To many who remember seeing the McConville children on the news pleading for information about their mother, it is traumatic to witness the rehabilitation of Sinn Féin, not only as part of the peace process in the north, but potentially entering government for the first time in the south.
The Sinn Féin candidate in Emma and Elaine’s constituency is Dessie Ellis, a member of the Irish parliament since 2011. He has previously acknowledged that he was involved with the IRA “at the highest levels” during the Troubles, and served ten years in prison during the 1980s on explosives charges.
But beyond the concerns of older voters and the main party leaders, there is not much appetite for historical criticisms of Sinn Féin, even among the party’s political opponents. Rebecca Moynihan, a councillor and parliamentary candidate for Labour (the party typically gets around 10 per cent of the vote in the Republic), takes issue with the framing of Sinn Féin as the radical left alternative. “I don’t consider things like abolishing property tax as being left-progressive,” Moynihan told me. “There are questions to ask: is it left or is it populist?”
But she freely gives the party credit for its recent role in opposition. “Some of the people in Sinn Féin are excellent spokespersons. Someone like Eoin Ó Broin really gets the housing crisis, is great on it.”
Ó Broin – along with the party leader Mary Lou McDonald; Pearse Doherty, the Sinn Féin finance spokesperson; and Louise O’Reilly, its spokesperson on health – has been a crucial player in the party’s recent gains. “We’ve built the credibility,” Ó Broin, the 47-year-old TD for Dublin Mid-West, told me. “We have to work harder to get a fair hearing. What we learned from 2008 onwards is we were always going to get more scrutinised. And I’m glad that was the case. It’s forced us to be more rigorous.”
Ó Broin explained that the party has worked hard to shift its register away from anger about government decisions and towards credible policy alternatives. “This is a generation who are mobilised by issues,” he suggested, when asked to explain the party’s apparent popularity among younger voters.
“They got a taste in the marriage equality and repeal referenda that if you engage in the electoral process you can change something. A lot of those same people have decided that this election is an opportunity to change something on housing.”
He emphasised that the party is also polling well among 35- to 54-year-olds. “This younger generation and the people they’re talking to are saying housing has to change, and this election is the chance to change it.”
But Ó Broin was keen to dismiss the idea that he and his young, slick colleagues are “the new generation”, the more respectable face of a party that still contains IRA veterans such as Dessie Ellis. “I am proud to be a member of the same parliamentary party as Ellis… Anyone who has a moral problem with him has a moral problem with me.”
He spoke of “the core values of left republicanism” represented by ex-IRA figures such as Ellis and the party’s former leader Gerry Adams. “There’s a really strong continuity over that 30-year period. I’m proud of it. Anyone who asks me, I tell them: ‘I’m a Gerry Adams republican’.”
There are concerns over Sinn Féin’s internal decision-making process: the party’s finance minister in Stormont asked a senior ex-IRA man if he would “be content” with a crucial decision to cut heating subsidies. But Ó Broin considers the allegations “pretty mild”. “The great strength of Sinn Féin in the peace process,” he said, “[is that] at every stage where we’ve moved, we’ve brought the family with us.”
There are “ex-combatants” in the national executive, but “the peace process is meant to be about facilitating the transition from armed conflict to political activity”. He adds: “There is nothing shady about elected representatives in politics speaking to advisers.”
The following day, I joined Louise O’Reilly, Ó Broin’s colleague, canvassing on a housing development in Dublin Fingal, a sprawling suburban constituency on the outskirts of the city. We met Denise, a professional in her mid-40s, who voted Fine Gael at the last election, but said she is now so angry with all politicians that she is considering not voting. Denise slowly softened as O’Reilly ran through her party’s proposals, denouncing Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil for having it “stitched up between them”. “I’ll be quite frank with you, I wouldn’t normally be keen on voting Sinn Féin,” Denise said. After they had spoken some more, she seemed convinced. “I think someone like you would be excellent in government.”