Analysis by Gerry O’Shea
The recent European and Local elections held in Ireland provided some interesting and significant results in both parts of the island.
The Sinn Fein vote in the North held well in the nationalist community there, but in the South the party dropped about a third of its support, shedding close to half its representatives in local councils and failing to hold two of its three seats in Europe.
This collapse was not anticipated by the pundits and led to widespread speculation about why so many voters abandoned the party.
It was Mary Lou McDonald’s first election as leader of Sinn Fein after decades of Gerry Adams at the top. He registered very well with Republican voters because of his close association with the revolution in the North. Adams claims controversially that he was never a member of the IRA but he certainly had the whiff of cordite which drew credibility from a significant number of nationalists.
On the other hand many commentators expected that McDonald, an able proponent for left-wing causes but with no personal connection to the revolutionary years, would win the support of progressive voters who had opposed the IRA war in the North. That did not happen.
One factor that hurt the Sinn Fein vote is the party’s abstention policy from Westminster. Normally this strategy wouldn’t bother people in the South, but the failure of the seven Sinn Fein MPs to play any role in the Brexit debate weakens the Irish case in these crucial negotiations. The Democratic Unionist Party(DUP), which represents only slightly more than 20% of the Northern electorate, commands the sole Irish voice that is heard as the interminable negotiations for an acceptable exit policy go on.
Sinn Fein’s abstention policy was developed in very different circumstances a hundred years ago. It is a serious mistake to continue this approach and allow the far-right wing of unionism to represent the interests of the people in the North, who in the Brexit referendum voted by a clear majority to remain in Europe.
The British decision to leave the European Union has huge implications for both parts of Ireland. One explanation for the collapse of the Sinn Fein vote in the South suggests that the voters, especially in the Dublin and Cork constituencies, are not pleased that there is no voice for nationalist Ireland as the Brexit debacle continues in Westminster.
The recent abortion and same-sex marriage referenda divided all the political parties in the South, but the two main groups, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, held their support in the May elections. The conservative wings of both parties, who mostly disagreed with the constitutional changes, returned to their base allegiance in the recent voting.
Some commentators suggest that many traditional Catholic Sinn Fein supporters did not forgive Mary Lou for her prominent leadership for constitutional change in the areas of abortion and same-sex marriage.
A prominent and impressive former Sinn Fein TD, Peadar Toibin, who strongly opposed legalizing abortion, left the party and set up AONTU, a new group which promotes a pro-life agenda while basically following traditional Republican policies on economic matters. They barely registered in the May elections, but they are organising North and South highlighting a different Republican approach to the emotional life issue.
Still with about 10% of the vote – down from around 15% – Sinn Fein remains the third largest party in the Dail. Ms McDonald promised a humble (her surprising word) widespread reflection on the poor election results and a renewed drive to build the organisation and clarify their policies before the next general election for the Dail, which is likely to take place in the next twelve months.
The success of the Green Party, led by the dynamic and authentic Sean Ryan, was predicted but not to the extent of winning more than 50 Local Authority seats and with an impressive 11% of the votes cast sending 2 MEPs to Europe. With this level of support the Greens are likely to have a major say in the composition of the next government in Dublin.
The Green Revolution, as Ryan’s party’s increased electoral support is being called, extended throughout Europe. They will form a strong group in the new European Parliament. Their focus is, of course, on the climate change crisis and the need for radical new policies to avoid a major environmental disaster.
It is noteworthy that the increased Green support in Europe came mainly from voters under 35, called millennials by some experts. Polls in America also identify this cohort of young voters as very concerned about the extreme weather that is becoming more and more part of our forecasts. Reliable and well-qualified scientists warn us that our planet is living on borrowed time.
President Trump, alone among Western leaders, considers global warming a hoax, and he is consistent in pursuing policies that are detrimental to the environment. Most millennials strongly disagree. Driven by this issue, they are likely to have an important say on who wins the presidential election next year, similar to the impact they just had in the European elections.
The Alliance Party, a determined non-sectarian group in Belfast, polled well in Northern Ireland, winning one of the three European seats, all now held by women, at the expense of the Official Unionist Party. They join Sinn Fein as strong supporters of Britain staying in Europe.
Will Alliance continue to grow and win more seats in future general elections? Can they, perhaps, break the stranglehold of sectarian voting in the North? Winning one of the European seats was a real boost for non-sectarian politics in an area that has been blighted by the seemingly-inexorable division along religious lines.
One other comment on the European elections in Ireland. While the big division in Great Britain and mainland Europe was between narrow nationalist anti-immigrant parties led by the likes of Farage in England and Le Pen in France, there was no similar driving issue in Ireland. There is no anti-immigrant party there. While there are always problems when new groups settle in established communities, the traditional Christian welcome for strangers as well as the long Irish history of sending their own to foreign shores trumps any tendency to join far-right groups that advocate closing doors to stranded refugees.
Gerry O’Shea is a New York writer. He blogs at wemustbetalking.com