Sinn Fein has demanded a vote on Irish reunification within five years as its price for entering government after missing out on becoming the country’s biggest party by just one seat following an historic election.
The left-wing Republican party, which has historic links to the IRA, stunned pollsters by scooping up the largest share of first preference votes in Saturday’s ballot – but ended up with 37 seats to Fianna Fail’s 38 once back-up preference votes were taken into account.
Despite being Ireland’s largest party, the result will be a disappointment for Fianna Fail – one of Ireland’s two main governing parties – as it lost six seats compared to the result in 2016.
The result also spells disaster for current premier Leo Varadkar and his Fine Gael party which ended up with 35 seats, a loss of 15 which is likely to put an end to his leadership career.
Sinn Fein narrowly missed out on becoming Ireland’s largest party by one seat at the general election, as leader Mary Lou McDonald (pictured) demanded a vote on Irish reunification
Sinn Fein won the first-place preference vote in Saturday’s ballot, but ended up with 37 seats to Fianna Fail’s 38 once back-up preferences were taken into account
Sinn Fein, meanwhile, is celebrating an historic triumph after picking up 14 seats which has seen the party complete its rise from fringe movement to potential leaders of the next government.
Party leader Mary Lou McDonald has made it clear on Monday that her goal is to become the next taoiseach – replacing Varadkar – and said she is in talks to ‘test’ the viability of a left-wing coalition without either of the two main parties.
‘Sinn Fein won the election, we won the popular vote… I’m very clear that people who came out and voted for Sinn Fein have voted for Sinn Fein to be in government,’ she added.
Even if Sinn Fein is forced to prop up another party in government, McDonald made it clear that her price will be a referendum on Irish reunification within five years.
She hailed the upset as a ‘ballot-box revolution’, adding: ‘The two-party system in this country is now broken.’
Michelle O’Neil, Sinn Fein’s vice-president and Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, said: ‘We want to be in government north and south.
‘Our objective is to deliver in health, housing and public services. And our objective is to unite this island.’
Micheal Martin, leader of main opposition party Fianna Fail, celebrates after winning 38 seats at the election – making his party Ireland’s largest, but still losing six seats compared to 2016
Sinn Fein’s rise to prominence marks an astonishing victory for a party once shunned for its IRA links, and adds Ireland to the growing list of countries around the world eschewing mainstream politics in search of new national identities.
In a sign of how far the party has come, it is worth remembering that former leader Gerry Adams and other party representatives were banned from the airwaves in the UK as violence raged over British rule in Northern Ireland over three decades to 1998.
But with two decades of peace and a new leader under Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein’s left-wing policies on tackling crises in housing and health found favour with voters.
McDonald said the two main parties – Fine Gael and Fianna Fail – were ‘in a state of denial’ and had not listened to the voice of the people.
Prime Minister and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar acknowledged the shift to ‘a three-party system’ on Sunday and said talks between the parties could be protracted and difficult.
The Fianna Fail party took 22.2 per cent of the popular vote and Fine Gael 20.9 per cent.
The result almost certainly spells an end to the leadership career of Leo Varadkar (pictured) after his Fine Gael party lost 15 seats and slumped into third place
‘The Irish political system has to react to it and probably accept that Sinn Fein will be part of the next government,’ Eoin O’Malley, associate professor at Dublin City University, told AFP.
Tuesday’s result was all the more striking because Sinn Fein ran just 42 candidates.
Analysts suggest the party may have been taken by surprise by its surge in popularity, and would likely be the largest party if it had put forward a larger slate.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have both ruled out any deal with Sinn Fein because of its past associations under Adams, who has long denied allegations he had a leadership role in the IRA.
‘The Troubles’ saw the IRA wage a campaign against unionist counterparts and British security forces over UK-rule in Northern Ireland that saw more than 3,000 killed on all sides.
McDonald’s policies on tackling wealth inequality and housing shortages appear to have appealed to younger voters in the EU member state’s 3.3 million-strong electorate.
Some 32 percent of voters aged 18-24 and 25-34 backed the party, according to an exit poll on Saturday.
Former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams (bottom right) looks on as party president Mary Lou McDonald addresses the national executive committee in Dublin
Dublin coffee shop manager Darren Hart said it was time for another party to try after decades of two-party dominance.
‘Whether they have a troubled past as a party or not, you know they deserve a shot, same as everybody else, so why not?’ he said.
In a sign of the sea-change in Irish politics, Varadkar himself was beaten to the first seat in his constituency by a Sinn Fein candidate on Sunday.
He took the second of four seats but it was a sharp symbolic blow on a long night for the premier, who was facing the electorate for the first time as prime minister.
Varadkar – young, openly gay and mixed-race – has been seen as the face of a new, more progressive Ireland after referendums overturning strict abortion laws and same-sex marriage.
Behind the respectable leaders of a modern party, the shadow of the gunman returns
Commentary by Kevin Toolis for the Daily Mail
Sinn Fein’s historic ‘surge’ in this weekend’s election has in effect torched the entire Irish political establishment. Overnight, the politics of consensus, compromise, and accommodation with British rule in Northern Ireland that has dominated Irish politics for the last 90 years has, to all intent and purposes, been abandoned.
As a result, the very existence of the Northern Irish state is now more in peril since the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rebellion.
And terrifyingly, the result has brought the IRA’s secretive Army Council close to power in Dublin.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with supporters after topping the poll in Dublin central at the RDS count centre in Dublin, Ireland
Make no mistake, Sinn Fein – the political party of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, of the bomb and the bullet – is still controlled by sinister shadowy figures from its recent terrorist past.
And it would be in power in Ireland today if only it had been more ambitious and fielded more election candidates.
The party’s figurehead leader, Mary Lou McDonald, might already have made the call to Downing Street to demand Irish re-unification.
Sinn Fein are now the most popular political party in Ireland, and the only party that has electoral representatives north and south of the border.
The Left-wing republican party took 24.5 per cent of the vote, compared to 22 per cent and 21 per cent respectively for the established parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. No one party will have enough seats for a majority, and before the election both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael ruled out forging a coalition with Sinn Fein, citing its IRA past and high tax policies as deterrents.
That was then – yesterday morning brought a new reality. Discussions to form a coalition will be difficult and prolonged, but whatever the exact composition of the future Irish government, this is an election that will re-shape the destiny of these islands forever.
Of course, the result is a thumping personal humiliation for former Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, leader of Fine Gael who, in his efforts to be a power player in Europe over Brexit negotiations, perhaps took his eye off the ball back home for longer than he should.
So how was the old order has been cast aside and how did a reinvigorated Sinn Fein become the engine of change for it?
Ireland has the youngest population in the EU and it was younger voters who put their faith in the newly-minted promises of Sinn Fein to solve the problems that beset this age group: a housing crisis, high rents, homelessness, a failing healthcare provision, creaking tax system widely seen to favour political cronies, and inequality in one of Europe’s best performing economies.
Thomas Gould of Sinn Fein tops the poll and is elected in Cork North Central, during the Irish General Election count at the Nemo Rangers GAA Club in Cork, Ireland
These voters did not grow up haunted by the Troubles; for them Sinn Fein’s links to the IRA and terrorism belonged to history. They saw, instead, two powerful women – both mothers – at the helm of Sinn Fein: its president Mary Lou McDonald, 50, and her 43-year-old vice-president, Michelle O’Neill, who leads Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.
But for two decades I reported on the bloody carnage of the Troubles, bombs, guns, and the terrible human cost. I wrote a book about the IRA and I spent thousands of hours in the company of IRA gunmen and their leaders.
Never once did I ever hear any regret or doubt about the cost in blood and pain in pursuing the IRA’s goal. Irish Republicanism is a faith, not a political philosophy.
And behind the slick image of change, Sinn Fein today remains very much the party of the paramilitary past. The ‘democratic party’ of Sinn Fein is still ruled by a reconstituted IRA Army Council based in Belfast known as the Ard Chomairle, and the shadowy IRA figures who control every aspect of policy and rigorously bully and expel anyone, even in their own ranks, who dissents from the leadership line.
This IRA politburo never meets in public, holds press conferences, or even admits to its true identity as the political executive of the IRA. Democratic debate or the usual personal rivalry of a real political party remain utterly foreign to Sinn Fein’s own internal politics. Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill might be poster girls for Sinn Fein, but they were appointed by edict to their position and then slavishly endorsed in North Korean-style votes by the party membership.
In a robotic fashion, they continue to parrot a line not that far from the IRA Army Council’s view that the 3,700 murders of the Troubles, and innumerable IRA atrocities, are all the fault of the British Government and that the answer to all of Ireland’s problems is the immediate re-unification of the island.
Ireland’s Fianna Fail party leader Micheal Martin after voting in the Irish General Election in Ballinlough, near Cork, Ireland
This rigid Stalinist control from the top, and the demand for unquestioning obedience to the IRA’s version of history, had – until this weekend – always hampered Sinn Fein from ever attracting a younger generation of politically able recruits south of the border.
Now, McDonald (and behind the scenes her IRA bosses) will have a key role as either a coalition partner with Fianna Fail, or as kingmaker – and I believe that real power and the prospect of a handful ministerial posts in the next Irish Government, means Sinn Fein is certain to attract more mainstream support that will pull the very centre of Irish politics towards the republican cause.
Even outside government, such a large bloc of Sinn Fein members in the Irish Parliament will effectively deliver a political veto.
On trade, on Brexit, on the border, on the European Union, every future Dublin government will dance to the Sinn Fein tune or risk being seen to betray the will of the Irish people. Or fall from power by a no confidence vote.
And every setback, every political skirmish with Downing Street on Brexit, will be recast into a hostile nationalist agenda towards British rule.
Nor is Dublin likely to spend so much energy placating the endless demands and insults of the DUP in the North just to keep the fragile political peace at Stormont. Why bother? Sinn Fein does not believe that Northern Ireland should exist as a state in the first place.
In reality as a political party, Sinn Fein only has one agenda – Irish re-unification. And they will now ruthlessly pursue this goal whatever the price.
Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar speaks to the media as he arrives for the Irish General Election count at Phibblestown Community Centre in Dublin on Sunday
The first thing on Sinn Fein’s political agenda is likely to be their demand for a border poll. As Northern Ireland’s Catholic population has grown, the gap with the Protestant majority has narrowed. There is a possibility that there is already a majority in Northern Ireland for a United Ireland.
But in Dublin government circles, until now, even the possibility of such a poll is viewed as no more than a political stunt designed to provoke violent opposition from loyalists in Northern Ireland and endanger the whole peace process.
All that has changed.
Bolstered what they see as the tide of history at their back, Sinn Fein, using their new found electoral numbers, are unlikely to be deterred whatever the cost in bringing their republican dream into being.
Ireland’s Troubles are far from over – and the shadow of a gunman is once again the most powerful force in Irish politics.
Kevin Toolis is the author of Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA’s Soul