Gerry Adams is riding the anti-austerity waveby David McKittrick / February 19, 2015 / Leave a comment
A sustained surge by Sinn Féin has placed the party within reach of power in the Republic of Ireland, establishing it as a major political force—with its president Gerry Adams the country’s most popular party leader.
With a general election due next year in an exceptionally volatile environment, the republican party will be among the contenders for a place in government. Opinion polls consistently place it neck-and-neck alongside the two major parties which have for many decades controlled the Republic’s politics.
The rise of Sinn Féin—which has taken place in spite of its identification with the violence of the now-inactive Irish Republican Army (IRA)—has dismayed and alarmed the traditional parties and the Dublin media. Both have viewed the party as a pariah.
Political life has been in a state of flux for several years, ever since the Republic’s economic crash led to the 2011 election that decimated the once-dominant Fianna Fáil party. The coalition that replaced it, made up of Fine Gael and Labour, came to power with a large majority but has suffered a dramatic slump in support. While Fianna Fáil has staged a partial recovery the most striking advances have benefitted Sinn Féin and a bevy of independents, taking the Republic into uncharted political waters.
A poll of polls, averaging the last 13 opinion surveys, puts Fine Gael at 24 per cent and Fianna Fáil at 19 per cent. But Sinn Féin has more than doubled its 2011 election performance, its showing of 22 per cent putting it alongside the county’s two largest mainstream parties.
The splintering in political strengths is shown by the fact that Labour has plummeted to 7 per cent while assorted “Independents and others” are at 28 per cent, illustrating a continuing and highly unpredictable fragmentation in Irish politics.
Gerry Adams has taken a sustained battering in both the Dáil (the Irish parliament) and in the media, facing allegations of ordering the 1972 murder of a Belfast mother and of helping to cover up sex abuse by members of the IRA, both of which he has publicly denied. The barrage has led to a sharp nine-point drop in his personal popularity yet his standing was so high that he remains, at 26 per cent, the most popular of the party leaders. The leaders of Fianna Fáil and Labour stand at 25 per cent while Enda Kenny, Prime Minister and leader of Fine Gael, has nose-dived to just 19 per cent.
Although the Irish economy has recently begun to show signs of recovering, the government is blamed by many voters for imposing austerity measures viewed as unnecessarily harsh and ineptly applied.
Kenny recently said the choice at the next election would be between a government led by his party or by a group possibly led by Sinn Féin. He admitted Ireland had witnessed “the emergence of Sinn Féin as a significant political entity.”
This is not regarded as mere scaremongering, since most analysts agree with the assessment. Stephen Collins, Political Editor of the Irish Times, wrote of Sinn Féin in January: “There is no doubt that the party will make big gains in the next election. The only question is how big.”
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Kenny, who has predicted the contest will be “a humdinger,” insists that his party will not go into government with Sinn Féin. Irish voters tend not to view such declarations as definitive, since they are accustomed to witnessing parties casting aside pre-election vows in the face of arithmetical necessity.
Ironically, the rise in support for Sinn Féin has almost nothing to do with the party’s primary aim of pushing for Irish unity: instead, its recent growth has come from its opposition to the government’s deeply unpopular austerity programme. Its resistance to austerity measures led one minister to denounce “the economic harakiri of Sinn Féin and the ultra left.”
Although there is no possibility of it forming a government as Syriza has in Greece, the fact that Sinn Féin has captured the consistent support of much of the poorest sections of society means it will be important in post-election negotiations.
A recent official claim that the era of austerity is now effectively over went down badly, since it coincided with the announcement of new water charges, a move that brought tens of thousands on to the streets in angry protests.
This meant that the first stirrings of recovery have not produced the bounce in support the government had hoped for, providing no new feel-good factor. Languishing in the polls as they are, the conventional parties are pinning their hopes on a developing recovery, which might stave off Sinn Féin’s electoral challenge.