Rise of Sinn Fein: Prospect of a United Ireland

Rise of Sinn Fein: Prospect of a United Ireland

The surprisingly strong showing of Sinn Fein, the left-leaning Irish republican party which fields candidates in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, is yet another profound political development for the British Isles in the period since Brexit.

Irish politics has primarily been dominated by two parties, Fine Gael, currently led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, and Fianna Fail. Sinn Fein was led until February 2018 by Gerry Adams, an MP from Belfast West, Northern Ireland. He has been suspected of being a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA); a claim he has repeatedly denied.

As recently as October 2019, Adams gave evidence in court in connection with events of the Troubles, the 1972 murder of Belfast resident Jean McConville. Sinn Fein has taken a decidedly more moderate path since Adams has left the leadership. Under the new leadership of Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein has projected a powerful new image as a more traditional European social democratic party instead of a nationalist one with a militant past. This view was particularly well received by young voters in the Republic of Ireland who no longer have vivid memories of the Troubles and have grown up in the period after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. 

As a result, the prospect of a united Ireland has likely increased and Sinn Fein will likely play a unique role as a bridge and power broker between Belfast and Dublin at the same time as the UK formalizes its exit from the European Union.

A New Generation

Sinn Fein has been viewed as an overtly nationalist party with a history of links to the IRA and a desire to see a united Ireland. Its success in the recent election is a profound breakthrough for both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and raises the serious prospect of a united Ireland occurring in the not too distant future. A united Ireland would mark a significant shift in European politics as it would signify the end of British rule and the formation of new pro-EU alliances, likely with Scotland and mainland Europe before England and Wales. When combined with the prospect of Scottish independence in the coming decade, it would be an ominous warning sign about the possible breakup of the United Kingdom.

In a similar vein as Scottish nationalism and the platform of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Irish left-wing nationalism has taken a decidedly pro-Europe approach that is more inclusive in its approach to immigration and social welfare policies than its far-right, populist counterparts. The election has revealed a common Irish identity that transcends the local divisions of Belfast or Dublin politics, and that perhaps most importantly, is keen to build further bridges with the continent at a time when the UK has now officially left the EU. Northern Ireland, along with Scotland, voted to remain in the EU by a margin of 55.8% to 44.2% in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Sinn Fein is determined to end British rule in Northern Ireland and the party is likely keenly aware of the opportunity Brexit has presented for Irish unification and for Belfast to further distance itself from the wishes of London. 

The years since the 2016 Brexit referendum have seen a rise in dissident republican activity in Northern Ireland and the prospect of a hard border between the republic and Northern Ireland has been a major contributor in the increase of recruits to the IRA. If Sinn Fein is successful in helping to build cross-border politics and engage with both sides of the border in a nonviolent and constructive way, the party will likely be viewed as successful in the eyes of its former IRA members in Northern Ireland. However, if Sinn Fein establishes a governing framework with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael that requires them to relinquish their aims for a united Ireland, they risk losing considerable support and being viewed as a puppet of the British government, actively working to undermine the cause of Irish republicanism. 

The Voting Blocs

As a result of the election, no single party received enough votes to govern alone, and Sinn Fein has held talks with the Green Party and People Before Profit, a socialist party, about forming a government. The Social Democrats, a more traditional centre-left party, is another prospect for a coalition, while Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have both pledged to not enter into a coalition with Sinn Fein. The result is that Sinn Fein has an uphill battle if it wishes to lead the government despite a strong showing that clearly represents a tremendous surge in interest in the party. The traditional centre-left and centre-right dynamic in Ireland may hold as a result of a second election later this year, but support for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael is clearly fraying. As a result of Brexit and the prospect of a united Ireland as well as a hard border, Sinn Fein is in a unique position to engage with more traditional voting blocs in both Dublin and Belfast and exploit the uncertainty that remains on the agenda in 2020.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.