Sinn Fein, generally known for its historical association with the Irish Republican Army and the peace process, has made a breakthrough in the twenty-six-county Irish Republic by garnering five seats in the Dublin Parliament. For those unfamiliar with the Irish electoral system, an equivalent achievement by Ralph Nader and the Green Party would have meant doubling their national vote and taking twenty Congressional seats in the 2000 election.
The recent victories for the left-wing Sinn Fein are a challenge to globalization and sharply contrast with the right-wing populism recently surfacing in other European elections. Sinn Fein campaigned against the Treaty of Nice, which would have expanded the European Union and which was rejected by Irish voters in a June 2001 referendum. The EU cannot be expanded without voter approval, and the Irish political and business establishment vows to set another referendum for later this year.
Fears of Irish immersion in an unaccountable European megastate underlay Sinn Fein’s opposition. At the same time, Sinn Fein campaigned strongly against the growing wave of anti-immigrant nationalism in the Irish Republic. This strategy of progressive rather than reactionary nationalism was voiced best by Danny Morrison, once a Sinn Fein leader and now an independent writer in Belfast, in an article on NATO: “The world has to remain a rainbow coalition of independent and good people, and if ‘nationalism’ means denying the bad people the authority to aggrandize power, and in our name to bomb people and nations we do not know or understand, who are of no threat, then ‘nationalism’ has to be for us.”
That would be a defeat for US officials who hope that a pro-business Irish Republic would become “America’s gateway” into Europe. The largest single foreign presence in the south of Ireland is that of US multinationals, mainly computer and pharmaceutical firms, using the island as a platform for business in the EU. Sinn Fein’s success, coupled with the six seats already held by the environmentalist Irish Green Party, means a strong bloc of progressive opposition to US-style globalization inside the Dublin Parliament.
Sinn Fein also showed the possibility of progressive populist politics at a time when traditional liberal politics has become centrist. The party campaigned for restoring and expanding the public health service, jobs and social programs for those left behind in the neoliberal “Celtic Tiger” economy. None of these issues, however, overshadowed voter attention to Sinn Fein’s role in the Northern Ireland peace process and its roots in armed struggle against British rule.
During the thirty-year conflict in the North, Sinn Fein advocates were subject to official censorship, harassment and arrest in the South. The intent of the Dublin government, while paying lip service to its founding nationalist ideals, was to quarantine the Troubles on the northern side of the border. In turn, during those decades, Sinn Fein’s opposition to partition led to a policy of abstention from the British and Dublin parliaments, which they considered illegitimate.
All that changed–changed utterly, to borrow from Yeats–when the IRA initiated a cease-fire in 1994 and peace talks led to electoral opportunities for Sinn Fein in the North. The organization has become the largest nationalist party in the Stormont Assembly and subsequently dropped its abstentionist posture in the South, where it began community organizing in urban slums and border counties, leading to this spring’s electoral breakthrough. Sinn Fein’s presence in the Dublin Parliament may implant a spine in the government led by Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, in the form of diplomatic efforts for peace with justice in the North.