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Sinn Fein's gains in the Irish elections show a generational split other parties can't ignore ǀ View

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In the lead up to the general election in Ireland on Saturday, the Republic's two main political parties, the centre right Fianna Fail and Fine Gael — who between them have ruled the state since its foundation — did their best to keep ghosts of Ireland’s troubled past alive (helped on by much of the media) in an effort to quell the surge in popular support for Sinn Fein, the party that was once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.

Both Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fail, and Fine Gael's Leo Varadkar, who has been Ireland's prime minister, or Taoiseach, ruled out working with Sinn Fein in the Dáil, or Parliament, with Martin even claiming without proof that Sinn Fein’s “justification for the IRA’s war is a continuing one.” (Considering that one Sinn Fein minister celebrated his election victory by shouting “Up the 'Ra," he may not have been entirely wrong.) Similarly many newspaper articles and editorials — some accompanied by images of armed and masked paramilitaries not connected to Sinn Fein — issued dire warnings that a vote for the party would be dangerous to the stability of the state.

But when early counts on Saturday revealed that this fervent opposition had done little to diminish support for Sinn Fein’s worker-friendly policies, one could almost hear the echo of words written by Ireland’s celebrated playwright, Sean O’Casey, in 1924's "Juno and the Paycock": "It's nearly time we had a little less respect for the dead, an' a little more regard for the living."

Ultimately, the election resulted in a three-way tie, meaning huge gains for Sinn Fein at the expense of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Adding insult to injury, neither Varadkar nor Martin won a majority of first preference votes in their constituencies, though both will keep their seats, while Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald topped the poll in her district.

Ireland uses a relatively unique ranked choice voting system for individual candidates known as proportional representation with a single transferrable vote, through which people in districts with more than one representative rank all the candidates in order of preference. When all the votes are in, election officials determine the number of votes needed for any one candidate to win. The candidate or candidates who gets that many votes is the first winner, and any excess "first preference" votes for that candidates are then allocated to voters' second choices on a proportional basis until a second candidate reaches the number of votes also needed to win a seat. The process then continues until all the seats in the district are filled.

Of course, promises are one thing and delivering on them is quite another. Sinn Fein is in the happy position at the moment of not having a track record of poor governance to defend.
Sadhbh Walshe
Filmmaker and journalist

Because Sinn Fein only fielded 42 candidates for the 160 seats in the Dáil, they won't have enough members seated to form a government on their own. But neither of the two bigger parties won an outright majority either, so it may take weeks or even months for a new government to be formed, which could consist of any combination of the three main parties, or a coalition of one of the bigger parties with the Greens, People Before Profit and various independents.

Still, in a further warning to the old guard, a breakdown of exit poll figures shows that nearly a third of 18- to 34-year-olds gave first preference votes to Sinn Fein, compared to just over 12 percent of those over 65. Meanwhile, the opposite held true for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail: Both won 15 percent or less of the youth vote and around 30 percent of the over-65 vote.

The conventional wisdom explaining that difference is that older generations in Ireland — those who lived through "the Troubles," as the 30-year conflict between Catholic and Protestant paramilitary forces and the British government in Northern Ireland was known — will never forgive Sinn Fein for their historic link with the IRA, while the younger generation simply don’t have the same associations. The question now is whether Sinn Fein will turn out to be the party the older generation is so afraid of, or the party into which young people have put all their hopes.

And whether Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will have been sufficiently chastened to fundamentally change their style of governing is still in question — particularly if both hold firm against a coalition government with Sinn Fein. Varadkar’s party clearly thought his success in avoiding the reinstatement of a hard border with Northern Ireland following Britain’s departure from the European Union would ensure his party’s re-election. But when voters were asked about the issue that would most influence their vote, Brexit — with all its implications for future trade deals and North-South relations — came in at just 1 percent, while 32 percent named health care as their top concern and 26 percent said housing.

Both those issues should continue to worry Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, which have been accused (with considerable justification) of prioritizing the interests of big business over the needs of the ordinary people. The previous Fianna Fail government’s all-too-cozy relationship with banks and developers was glaringly exposed after the housing bubble burst in 2008, bringing the Irish economy to its knees. In the ensuing "recovery" under Fine Gael, a severe reduction in new constructions has driven house prices up by 86 percent. With no real rent controls, landlords have been able to capitalize on the shortage, almost doubling rents in under 10 years, ultimately forcing nearly 10,000 people into homelessness.

It’s no wonder then that young people, who can’t afford to either rent or buy, would gravitate toward Sinn Fein’s promise to build 100,000 affordable homes, rather than rely on Varadkar’s elitist advice to “borrow the deposit” from their parents.

Similarly, successive Fianna Fail and Fine Gael governments have failed to adequately address the growing health care crisis that has led to understaffed hospitals, a record number of patients stuck on stretchers in hallways instead of beds and long waiting lists for necessary procedures. In 2017, an all-party committee came up with a government-approved plan, Slaintecare, to achieve universal health care in 10 years. Although Varadkar’s Fine Gael government claims to support Slaintecare, it has so far failed in its implementation of the program. So, on this issue, too, it’s understandable that concerned voters would flock to Sinn Fein, which developed its own budgeted plan to deliver universal health care in 2015.

Of course, promises are one thing and delivering on them is quite another. Sinn Fein is in the happy position at the moment of not having a track record of poor governance to defend. It’s likely for that reason that some commentators — along with the opposition parties — have continued to make this election about IRA atrocities, instead of Sinn Fein’s evidently popular policy positions.

Voters have made their priorities clear, however: They want their elected officials to focus on the issues that immediately affect their lives. As negotiations to form the next government get underway, one can only hope that all the parties, and not just Sinn Fein, will take that message to heart.

  • Sadhbh Walshe is a filmmaker and journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Irish Times and Al Jazeera. She was a staff writer for the TV series "The District" and is currently working on a screenplay

This piece was first published by NBC Think.

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