Deaglán de Bréadún
Ever since the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, on which the State was founded, analysts and observers have complained that Irish politics was based on the conflict, which erupted over the terms of that agreement, rather than normal left-right issues. The forebears of the two dominant parties, Fianna Fáil (‘Soldiers of Destiny’) and Fine Gael (‘Tribe of the Irish’), were on opposite sides in the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, which left almost 1,000 dead including 77 combatants executed by the pro-Treaty government.
The two parties remained bitter opponents over many decades, but now, almost 100 years after the Treaty, they have combined in a coalition government, with the Green Party as the third leg of the stool.
This has come about because the rise of Sinn Féin, the democratic socialist and left-wing party, has ended the dominance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. In the old days, after the votes were counted in a general election, each of the two parties that were descended from the Civil War adversaries could expect to be well ahead of other participants such as Labour or the now-defunct Progressive Democrats, who could then be approached as necessary for support in forming a government.
All that has changed for the foreseeable future. In the latest general election on February 8, Sinn Féin got the highest number of votes at 535,595 or 24.5 per cent of the total, compared to 484,320 for Fianna Fáil at 22.2 per cent and 455,584 for Fine Gael at 20.9 per cent. If the party led by Mary-Lou McDonald had stood more candidates, it might have won well over 40 seats but it ended up with an impressive 37. Fianna Fáil came back with 38 representatives in the 160-member house of parliament but one of these was the Ceann Comhairle, or Speaker, who was automatically re-elected. Fine Gael, meanwhile, emerged with 35 seats.
Fianna Fáil under Micheál Martin and Fine Gael, led by outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar obviously wanted to be in power but neither of them was keen on an alliance with Mary Lou McDonald’s party. Some would say they were wary of Sinn Féin because of its past connection with the troubles in Northern Ireland where it was seen as the political counterpart of the Irish Republican Army. Others, especially in Sinn Féin itself, would say that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are conservative reactionaries at heart.
Speaking in advance of the election, Fine Gael leader and outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, explained why there couldn’t be a coalition between his party and Sinn Féin: “It is a principled position that we are taking, and that is the view that Sinn Fein is not a normal party.”
Holding to this position after the people had voted, he said Fine Gael was “not compatible” with Sinn Féin because, to form a government, the parties need to have “roughly the same views” around the courts, the criminal justice system, the economy and how democracy should function.
In a recent press conference at Leinster House, home of the Irish parliament, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald addressed the issue.
“As the story of the election unfolded, it was clear that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael together had – whatever their differences – a singular determination to frustrate or stop Sinn Féin having electoral success, in the first instance, and certainly entering government.”
She continued: “They may succeed in slowing change down and frustrating change for a big period of time but they won’t stop it, because the appetite for change is certainly way beyond Sinn Féin. We’re the largest political party representing that change here in the Oireachtas [Irish houses of parliament], but we’re also very clear that others and other forces in society are arguing for change too and we will prevail.”
Announcing her party’s revamped front-bench team for the newly-elected parliament, McDonald said: “We’ll stand up for workers and for families on the issues that matter to them and this means rebuilding the economy, with decent work for decent pay at its core, as well as delivering affordable housing, a single-tier health system, public child-care and restoring the pension age to 65.
“We will of course work for a United Ireland, as the health and economic challenges posed by both Covid-19 and by Brexit [Britain’s exit from the European Union] have starkly exposed that an all-island approach just makes common sense.”
The Sinn Féin leader said that the “very formidable” Dublin TD, Louise O’Reilly, would be moving from Health to Enterprise, Trade and Employment, where the former Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, leader of the Fine Gael party, has just been appointed Minister in the new government.
Sinn Féin is now a major political force in both parts of the island of Ireland. Whether the party can achieve its long-held objective of a United Ireland remains to be seen but it is certain that the political landscape has changed beyond recognition.
Deaglán de Bréadún is a freelance journalist and author based in Dublin. He is a columnist with The Irish News and his books include ‘The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland’ and ‘Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin’. His reporting on the Good Friday Agreement negotiations and their aftermath for The Irish Times won the Northern Ireland IPR/BT award for Daily News Journalist of the Year.