Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald with union workers | Twitter | @MaryLouMcDonald
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald with union workers | Twitter | @MaryLouMcDonald
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New Delhi: In the recently-concluded elections in Ireland, Sinn Fein, a party that was once associated with the insurgent group Irish Republic Army (IRA), shattered all political expectations by winning the popular vote and becoming the second-largest party with 37 seats in the Dial — the country’s lower house of Parliament. It is also most likely to form government.

In the 20th century, the party was the political wing of the violent radical group IRA, which led an insurgency between 1968 and 1998 against Britain known as ‘The Troubles’, that resulted in the death of more than 3,600 people.

However, in this election, the once-fringe Sinn Fein was able to surpass the century-long dominance of the ruling Fine Gael party and the Fianna Fail, the largest party this election with 38 seats, by running a socialist democratic campaign. They addressed issues such as homelessness, rising rents, cost of insurance and the general rise in inequality.

As the party begins talks with other political parties to form a coalition government, there are lingering fears that despite its new avatar, the party is still run by old elected leaders who continue to have links with paramilitary groups, especially the IRA.


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IRA-led insurgency and Sinn Fein’s role in it 

Sinn Fein was formed in the early-20th century and its name, taken from the Gaelic language, translates to “ourselves alone”. Back then, it was a constitutional political party and won a majority of seats in Ireland during the British general elections of 1918. This gave it the impetus to launch a violent campaign against the British during the War of Liberation in 1919.

The war ended in 1921 after a political settlement was reached and Ireland was divided into the independent Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which would continue to be a part of the UK. Sinn Fein decided not to contest elections after the end of the war — marking its protest against the partition.

In the next few decades, the party split on several occasions and rose to fame again in 1968 when the IRA decided to reignite the insurgency against the British state in order to fulfil their demand of a unified Ireland.

The conflict was not limited to Ireland alone. According to a New York Times report, “The bombings spread to the rest of Britain, targeting senior figures including Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Mortars were fired at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence and office, and at Heathrow Airport outside London. British troops hunted down I.R.A. members as far afield as Gibraltar.”

Sinn Fein was the main political arm of the IRA at the time, and performed a plethora of tasks including raising funds. “Sinn Fein was very much an auxiliary of the Irish Republican Army. They were there for propaganda purposes, they were there to raise the funds, they were there to speak on behalf of the IRA, but they were very much second-cousins,” noted PBS.


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Sinn Fein’s gradual shift towards a socialist democratic party 

Two events marked Sinn Fein’s shift from an anti-British insurgent group to a democratic political party. In 1986, under the leadership of Gerry Adams, the party’s president and chief strategist, it finally decided to give up abstentionism and fight for seats at the Dial.

Then, in 1998, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, an arrangement was reached whereby power in Northern Ireland would be shared between the pro-UK Democratic Unionist and the pro-unification Sinn Fein. Since then, Sinn Fein has been a part of the Northern Irish government.

In the meantime, the party’s vote share increased very gradually. From 1.9 per cent vote share in 1987, it increased to just 2.6 per cent votes in 1997.

But the real shift came in 2005, when the IRA decided to give up weapons and end the insurgency. Until then, Sinn Fein had to carry the baggage of being a violent-IRA’s political arm. By 2011, its vote share had surged to 9.9 per cent. And now in 2020, it secured the highest votes with 24.2 per cent of the vote share.

What led to this resurgence 

A couple of factors are responsible for Sinn Fein emerging as the most popular party in the 2020 elections.

First, in 2017, its leader Gerry Adams made way for Mary Lou McDonald. In order to further distance her party from the IRA, the new leader brought in new faces, who had no connection to the insurgency.

Second, during the 2020 elections, their campaign was focused on delivering a socialist-democratic agenda. While the 2008 global financial crash wrecked the Irish economy, the subsequent years of austerity severely lowered people’s living standards. In such a scenario, there was a growing sense of disenchantment with the two centrist political parties.

Sinn Fein won “in large part by appealing to voters who felt left behind by a booming economy and chafed at soaring rents, homelessness, insurance costs and hospital waiting lists,” reported The Guardian.

“For many in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and other towns, the troubles are about paying rent, not murky historical events north of the border,” added the report.

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