Winds of Change on the Emerald Isle: Election Year in Ireland

By Cameron Kelly | Brussels, European Union 

The Irish political landscape has been almost exclusively dominated by either the centre-right Fine Gael or the centrist Fianna Fáil. That was until the general election of 2020 which saw support for republican-socialist Sinn Féin rise in light of a poorly functioning healthcare system, a worsening housing crisis and the soaring cost of higher education. As Europe inches closer to the European Elections in June, which will be closely followed by a general election in Ireland, what does this mean for Irish-EU relations and subsequently, the state-of-play of politics on the emerald isle?

2020 saw Sinn Féin emerge – for the first time in history – with the highest share of first preference votes (24.53%) with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael trailing behind with 22.18% and 20.86%, respectively. Despite gathering the largest number of first preference votes, Sinn Féin – branded as left-wing populists – were left out of government when long-standing foes Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, together with the Irish Green Party, formed a grand coalition.

Who are Sinn Féin?

Sinn Féin, historically associated with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as its political wing, underwent a shift in perception during the 1990s, when both entities began to assert their distinct, and separate identities. Sinn Féin are the only large political party operating in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. They are currently serving as the largest governing party in Northern Ireland and their primary goal is reuniting the 6 counties of Northern Ireland with the Republic, reflecting a blend of nationalist and republican ideologies. While the party aligns itself with democratic socialism, some cast doubt on its depiction as a strictly left-wing entity. Sinn Féin is currently lead by Mary Lou McDonald who is a strong critic of the EU’s foreign policy, particularly its position on the Israel-Palestine conflict and of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

State-of-Play of politics in Ireland

On 20 March, Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar made the surprise announcement he would step down as Taoiseach. Following a brief period of uncertainty, Simon Harris was appointed as his successor.

A well-established name in Irish politics, Harris served in several ministries since 2014 with mixed success, in particular during his tenure as health minister, before being named Ireland’s youngest-ever Taoiseach. Harris faces a tough challenge to impress and reassure voters of his party’s stability, and that of its coalition with Fianna Fáil, especially if these institutional parties intend to keep a surging Sinn Fein out of government by the time the next general election is held in 2025.

Campaigning begins

Current polls place Sinn Féin, once again, comfortably ahead of the pack in the run up to the elections. On 28 April, Sinn Féin launched its campaign for the EU and local elections and it is clear that leader Mary Lou McDonald is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past, stating: “after the 2020 General Election; I couldn’t walk the length of myself without being told we didn’t run enough candidates. They stopped me in the street, at matches, at concerts, shouted it from car windows. […] Well, to you all, I present, Sinn Féin’s record number of candidates for the local and European elections. We are running our largest number of candidates and standing in every single electoral area.”

A Sinn Féin government and EU relations

McDonald has reinforced her belief that Ireland’s place is within the European Union but that the EU had moved in the wrong direction, choosing “militarisation over peace, privatisation over public services, big corporations over ordinary citizens and communities, power over partnership.” A heavy critic of the EU’s support of Israel, McDonald committed to defending Ireland’s longstanding neutrality against any perceived attempts by either the sitting Irish government or the European Commission to alter it. Referring to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, McDonald stated that she had “showed her hand when she stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel as they committed slaughter and war crimes against the people of Gaza”, going on to say that President von der Leyen “did not stand for us. She did not speak for us. She never, ever will.”

A Sinn Féin government will likely have far reaching impacts on traditionally strong Irish-EU relations and will reflect a dramatic change in the direction of Irish politics. With Sinn Féin now the dominant governing party in Northern Ireland, a Sinn Féin government may also spell trouble for relations between the UK, Ireland, and the EU as they pursue their vision of a unity referendum between both jurisdictions on the island after over a century of division.