In the Republic of Ireland’s last general election, Sinn Fein received 24 per cent first preference votes. This was the first time a left-wing party had received the largest mandate in the one-hundred years since the South of Ireland’s independence from Britain. But due to Sinn Fein not running enough candidates, and the neoliberal Green Party’s willingness to prop up the status quo – the centre-right duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were able to retain power and form a coalition government. Now in opposition, Sinn Fein’s momentum continues to grow as they open up a 10-point lead over the other parties according to the latest opinion poll.
The illusion of a booming economy
Internationally, Ireland has been lauded as an economic miracle. Following the crash in 2008, Ireland was one of the worst-hit in Europe. Its recovery has been held up to the rest of the world as an example of what a country can achieve if it plays by the rules of the game. Austerity, neoliberalism, and an open economy are the answer. Your reward – you can be like Ireland, and have the fourth fastest growing economy in the world.
So why did a left-wing party receive the largest mandate at a general election? Why are people voting to change the rules of a winning game?
In 2019, the IMF estimated that 60 per cent of Ireland’s foreign direct investment is “phantom.” In other words, by 1500 multinationals registering their companies in Ireland for tax purposes, Ireland’s economy is accredited with growth that took place elsewhere. In 2015, after Apple shifted its intellectual property assets to an Irish domicile, a quarter of Ireland’s GDP growth was attributed to global sales of iPhones. Simply put, Ireland’s GDP does not reflect its real economy.
And if you think, at least the Irish people must be benefiting from their 12.5 per cent corporate tax revenue – companies are still managing to dodge it. Even when the European Commission ordered Apple to pay back €13 billion, the Fine Gael government refused the money.
And with Ireland not borrowing despite the European Central Bank’s low interest rates – there is little to invest in housing, health or transport. Instead, the state chooses to rely on market forces and the disproven myth of trickle-down economics to solve public problems. This grows the disparity between rich and poor as wealth remains concentrated at the top of society.
Any money the state did have, was squandered after the crash of 2008. This time it was Fianna Fáils turn to help out the financial sector, choosing to spend billions of public money on bailing out banks and property developers. Vulture funds then swooped in to buy swathes of property for pennies. Now property prices are 8 times the average wage in Dublin, whilst to get a mortgage, the price of the house must be no more than 2.5 times your yearly salary.
This locks the majority out of home ownership and creates a class of permanent renters. Rather than paying money into a house that is accruing in value and where you eventually own the asset at the end of the mortgage payment – the money leaves the pockets of an Irish worker and goes straight into the hands of an absentee landlord or corporate fund. If this money is re-invested in the Irish economy, it comes in the form of hotels, AirBNBs and commercial apartments to rent. Meanwhile 10,000 people, including nearly 4000 children are homeless and living in temporary accommodation.
To address this issue, the government released its “Housing for All Plan.” In the plan, there was no mention of price caps, but it did contain a tax relief for landlords. The government’s indifference was then typified by Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Leo Varadkar, who stressed “we need to balance that another person’s rent is another person’s income.”
Whether it’s giving Apple a tax break or refusing to build council houses, it’s all in the name of the neoliberal syllogism: do not interfere with the market, do not scare off investment, you will achieve long-term economic growth. But this growth is not real, the investment is “phantom”, and the market is failing to provide social provision for Ireland’s people. Ask one of the thousands of homeless families about the wonders of Ireland’s economic miracle.
After the gay marriage referendum in 2015 when 62 per cent voted in favour of gay marriage, followed by the referendum on abortion where the majority voted for a woman’s right to choose, Ireland’s electorate chose to break its longstanding ties with the Catholic Church. With Ireland politicised and progressive, and an electorate who were not feeling the boom and who were sick of soaring rents – space for left politics began to grow.
And with the labour party part of a coalition that oversaw the bailing out of the banks, and the Green party currently in coalition with the centre-right – Sinn Fein have become the party of the left in Ireland.
Historically, Sinn Fein was the political wing of the IRA. In the last election, the establishment parties, who were often shy in condemning British atrocities, were more than happy to exploit IRA atrocities to undermine Sinn Fein in the last general election.
But with the establishment parties also having links to the IRA in the 1920’s, and the old IRA leaders replaced with a young generation of leaders who were never involved in the Troubles – the feigned outcry of the establishment parties fell on deaf ears.
While some of the older generation will never vote Sinn Fein due to their previous ties with the IRA, younger voters who have never known conflict are moving across to Sinn Fein in their droves, with the latest opinion poll suggesting 39 per cent of 18–34-year-olds would vote Sinn Fein in the next general election.
But Sinn Fein are not just popular with young people. They are also popular in both the inner city and rural areas, whilst remaining the most popular party among people in the working-class socio-economic bracket.
This defies the trend across Europe and the US where voting preferences are divided between young people and the working class, as well as whether you live in the countryside or are from the inner city.
From Irish nationalism to left populism
Across Europe and the US, nationalism has historically been rooted in the colonisation and oppression of other nations. Today, this historical legacy lives on through white supremacy and the far right. But in Ireland, nationalism is viewed as a response to English nationalism, borne out of being the colonised rather than the coloniser, Irish nationalism has its roots in self-determination and the anti-colonial struggle which are intrinsically left-wing.
While Sinn Fein has been the largest nationalist party in the North of Ireland for over 15 years, their electoral success in the South is relatively new. To appeal to a Southern electorate where Irish re-unification is not at the top of the agenda, Sinn Fein has had to evolve their old-style nationalist rhetoric into a more contemporary form of left populist rhetoric. Whereas before they talked of oppression from the British state, they now talk about oppression from landlords, bankers, insurance companies and property developers.
And with the far-right and Irish nationalism divorced from each other – the far-right in Ireland is exclusively a space for 5G conspiracy theorists and Covid-19 deniers where they poll at less than 1 per cent. The amount of time the Irish electorate have for the far-right was summed up in Claire Byrne’s recent interview with Nigel Farage. And with the media having no interest in giving a platform to the far-right – public discourse is not manipulated towards scapegoating immigrants or people on benefits.
This allows for economic issues to be adequately highlighted and for people to come to the realisation that issues like an absence of affordable housing are as prevalent for young people as they are for the working class, and that people rural areas also have housing issues – as the recent Mica and pyrite crisis indicate.
It is no coincidence that in a political climate that is free of artificially constructed “culture wars,” that at the last exit poll the three biggest issues at the top of voters agendas were housing, health and homelessness.
As the primary opposition party, Sinn Fein has met this demand by bringing issues like housing to the forefront of political discourse. After forcing the government to accept there was a housing crisis, the government’s Housing For All Plan was immediately rebuffed by Sinn Fein housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin who offered a detailed alternative plan.
By intertwining catchy populist slogans and pointed rebuttals of government policy – Sinn Fein is successfully challenging the neoliberal policies of the centre-right and bringing left politics back to the front of the Republic of Ireland’s political agenda.