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.
When polls this spring showed that Sinn Fein was gaining with voters in the South, all the major parties ganged up to declare that they would never include Sinn Fein in a coalition government until the IRA fully disbanded. Ironically, this was opposite the stance taken by the same parties toward the peace process in Northern Ireland, where they fully endorsed the entry of Sinn Fein into electoral competition north of the border. The message to southern voters, in sum, was that a vote for Sinn Fein was a wasted vote for an isolated party with continuing terrorist associations.
The voters, however, weren’t buying that line. In the most intensely watched constituency, in North Kerry, the Sinn Fein candidate was Martin Ferris, who had spent ten years in prison for IRA gunrunning on a trawler out of Boston. The Gardai (state police) arrested the candidate in the run-up to the election, roughed him up, floated claims that he knew something about a vigilante attack on drug dealers four months earlier, then released him without pressing charges. Ferris, who endured a forty-seven-day hunger strike in 1977, won the seat easily from Labour’s Dick Spring, a former Irish foreign minister who was a favorite of the Clinton Democrats.
While other guerrilla movements of the left have withered or failed to make the electoral transition, Sinn Fein keeps growing, despite the chilling impact of the war on terrorism and the close British-US alliance. Although its total vote in the Republic’s proportional system is at 7 percent, its leader, Gerry Adams, has equaled and at times even topped the popularity of Prime Minister Ahern. And unlike any other party, Sinn Fein now has seats in Parliament in London, the Assembly in Stormont and the southern Irish Dail, or Parliament. The Bush Administration has been unhappy with this Irish exceptionalism to the generally conservative trend in the wake of the war on terrorism.
Sinn Fein’s chief burden, being identified as the IRA’s “political wing,” is also the source of its strength, at least as long as the IRA’s guns remain silent. Continued provocation by loyalists in the North, like the relentless pipe-bomb attacks on Catholics this past year, might still provoke the IRA to respond, though the chances are minimal. The IRA cease-fire enables Sinn Fein to compete successfully for the middle-class peace vote, especially north of the border, and to stake a claim in the South as the movement that ended the war on a just note for nationalists. Perhaps the greater burden in the South, shared by parties of the left all over the world, is how to tap the middle-class vote in a time of relative prosperity and voter comfort. For that challenge, Sinn Fein will have to find a way to link its leadership charisma and peace program to a revival of social and economic democracy.
Father Desmond Wilson, a respected independent priest from Republican West Belfast, voiced this challenge that the new politics still faces after hearing the election returns: “Will Ireland in its prosperity become an example of how you can really get rid of poverty and bring equality? Will Ireland succeed in convincing the world that militarism should be stopped, that the world should be taken care of and its people most of all, even if it means reducing the lifestyle of the potentially very rich? Nobody needs to be very rich, but everybody needs to survive with dignity.” It appears that some people are listening.