Sinn Féin's result is historic—but it's a long way from a united Ireland

The process to a poll is complex, and may not even be the party's first priority

February 11, 2020
Sinn Féin's vote share was motivated by a need for action on welfare and social care, too. Photo: PA
Sinn Féin's vote share was motivated by a need for action on welfare and social care, too. Photo: PA

This week, the final results of the Irish general election were announced after two full days of counting. In a leisure centre in Cavan, the last of the newly elected crop of TDs (Teachtaí Dála; members of parliament) were announced to the raucous cheers of the victors and exhausted yawns of the vote counters.

It was a muted end to a 48 hours which changed Irish politics utterly. On Saturday night, the exit poll sent shockwaves throughout the political landscape, revealing an unexpected Sinn Féin surge which put the previously small party on a par with the traditional two main parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Sinn Féin received 24.5 per cent of first preference votes cast, Fianna Fáil received 22.2 per cent and Fine Gael, who have been in government since 2011, came third with 20.9 per cent.

A hung Dáil

Under the country’s proportional voting system, the exact seat share takes a while to calculate and the country held its breath as it waited to see exactly how vote transfers would pan out. In the end, Fianna Fáil (a centrist party, which tends to veer towards the left on public spending) won the most seats with 38. Sinn Féin came a close second with 37 and Fine Gael (another centrist party, which is more fiscally conservative) came third with 35.

None of the parties have enough seats to form a majority in the 160 seat Dáil parliament. Such a scenario is common in Ireland, where parties often govern in confidence-and-supply arrangements or coalitions. However, what has changed momentously is that for the last century, either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil has been in power in some form or another.

Sinn Féin, who have been in government in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangement at Stormont for over a decade, have largely been relegated to fringe status in the Republic, with few imagining they would ever stand on the cusp of power in Dublin.

Who goes into government?

A series of intense negotiations are now underway, as Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald seeks to cobble together enough support among smaller left-wing parties.

However, such a grand coalition could be unwieldy and fall apart in the short to medium term. Ireland’s left is by no means homogenous, and Sinn Féin may find that in such an arrangement they are simply unable to satisfy all competing demands.

The alternatives, however, also have their own problems. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael promised during the election campaign that they would never enter government with Sinn Féin. They could attempt to limp on, with support from some independents and small right-wing parties, but both parties received a drop in vote share and seat numbers in this election and may struggle to claim they have public support.

A period of uncertainty

While Ireland is in a period of deep uncertainty while negotiations take place, in the North, the shockwaves of the Republic’s election are also being felt. Many unionists feel spooked that the result could undermine Northern Ireland’s future in the UK and hasten the advent of a United Ireland.

Such anxiety is understandable given Sinn Féin’s central policy is the re-unification of Ireland. Indeed, before the final seats had been announced, McDonald gave an interview with BBC Newsnight reiterating her support for a united Ireland and calling on the EU to end its longstanding neutrality on the issue and instead actively advocate for reunification. This has startled many unionists used to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s stance on reunification which often appears to be ambivalent at best.

The path to a poll

However, such discussions should come with considerable caveats. It is worth remembering that the only legislative provisions for a united Ireland to come about lie within the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace treaty which ended Northern Ireland’s Troubles conflict.

The Agreement, which has been signed by both the UK and Irish governments, commits that it can only happen if a majority of people in Northern Ireland back a united Ireland in a border poll. A poll can only be called if the UK’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland believes such a poll would pass and decides to hold one.

The conditions for how exactly the Secretary will believe it has a chance of passing are vague—there is no specific measurement or regularly conducted official opinion poll. This ambiguity is likely to be to unionists’ advantage, especially while the union supporting Conservatives are in power, as it gives the UK government power to interpret it as they wish.

A refuge for Shinners?

Therefore, if McDonald becomes Taoiseach (Prime Minister) or Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) she may be more likely than her  predecessors to demand a border poll, but she cannot actually initiate border poll on the UK government’s behalf.

Instead, a Sinn Féin government would be more of a symbolic shift which would result in a slow cultural movement towards greater appetite and preparation for a united Ireland within the Republic.

McDonald could call a citizens’ assembly in the Republic to develop detailed policy proposals on what reunification would look like, or task civil servants with drawing up plans for practical aspects of delivering the constitutional change. Such moves could help convince so-called ‘soft nationalists’ of the merits of reunification and avoid the mistakes of the Brexit referendum, in which huge constitutional change was promised with few specifics thought out.

Housing and health

However, Sinn Féin will likely be mindful that a vote for them does not necessarily mean a vote for a united Ireland, particularly in the Republic. During the election campaign, the constitutional question seldom featured, with politicians instead focusing on crises in housing and health. Sinn Féin will not want to alienate moderate voters who lent them a vote on the basis of these other issues by engaging in overtly hardline Republican rhetoric or acts.

In the coming days and weeks, a flurry of phone calls and meetings will take place across Leinster House as the parties desperately work to establish whether they can make a coalition work. While the exact makeup of the arrangement is impossible to predict currently, it’s clear that Ireland’s political landscape has shifted momentously, with questions previously ignored or considered unthinkable now pushed to the fore.