Southern Irish election: Sinn Fein takes the lead

Frenemies: Micheal Martin (leader, FF), Leo Varadkar (leader, FG), MaryLou McDonald (leader, SF); they all just want to manage capitalism

This is an updated version of the article that went up on February 9 (NZ time) before counting began.

by Philip Ferguson

With almost all the votes now counted, Sinn Fein looks like being the big winner in Saturday’s election in the south of Ireland.

Exit polls showed a three-way virtual tie between the main parties in the south of Ireland. Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were all on just over 22% of first preferences: FG on 22.4, SF on 22.3, FF on 22.2.  These polls indicated that almost 32% of 18-24 year-olds voted Sinn Fein.

But now, with 96% of the votes cast, SF is sitting on 24.1% of first preferences and both FF and FG are on 22.1%.  For the first time

SF didn’t expect to do so well, especially after suffering substantial losses in the Euro and local government elections last year, so ran a limited number of candidates – it looks like it will get less seats than it could have gotten if it had’ve aimed for two seats in more constituencies.  (In the five-seater Donegal and Cavan-Monaghan consituencies, where it did run two candidates, both were elected.)  Moreover, SF topped the poll in 30 of the 39 constituencies, a remarkable achievement.  Its poll-topping candidates had substantial surpluses to transfer.  At the same time, these surpluses have transferred significantly to two Trotskyist parties, helping them keep five of their six seats.

The southern state has a single transferable vote (STV) with multi-member constituencies (160 seats, divided into 39 constituencies, electing between 3 and 5 members each).  Voters list their candidates according to preferences – their no. 1 preferred candidate, their no. 2, 3, etc.  There is a quota for getting elected.  When anyone reaches that quota, the amount of votes they received above the quota are transferred to their next preferred candidates; also, as candidates are eliminated, their preferences are distributed as well.  This goes on – there may be two or three ‘counts’, there may be ten counts – until all the seats in that constituency are filled.

The ceann comhairle, chair of the parliament (equivalent of the Speaker in NZ and Britain), is automatically re-elected – this is supposedly to preserve their neutrality. (They usually are selected by the governing party or party with the most seats, but are supposed to be neutral and only vote if there is a tie.)

The exit polls indicated the small far-left parties – People Before Profit (led by the Socialist Workers group) and Solidarity (led by the Socialist Party) – on 2.8%. This level of support, along with substantial transfers from Sinn Fein – many SF voters gave their second preferences to the Trotskyists – could well be enough for them to hold onto all or most of their current six seats, as their votes are concentrated in a handful of areas in Dublin and one area in Cork. Encouragingly, the exit polls showed the Labour Party at only 4.6%, in 5th position, behind the Greens, on 7.9%.  The Social Democrats, a slightly left split from Labour after Labour’s viciously anti-working class role in coalition government with Fine Gael from 2011-2016, were on 3.4% in the exit polls, enough for a few seats.

Most of Labour’s old working class base – never all that large, as workers tended more to vote Fianna Fail – has shifted to Sinn Fein, the small Trotskyist parties, and the SDs.  Some has probably drifted back to Fianna Fail (in 2011 Labour overtook Fianna Fail, becoming the second party for the first time ever and Fine Gael becoming, for the first time ever, the number one party).

However, FG-Labour, at the behest of the EU and banks, imposed vicious austerity.  Labour, of course, took to attacking the working class like ducks to water.  They seemed to love swinging the axe.  The working class fought the attacks with mass action in the streets, civil disobedience (in the case of the water tax) and massive rejection of Labour at the polls.  In order to hang onto their seats, several Labour TDs (MPs) left and set up the Social Democrats.  With two massive election rejections, the future of the Labour Party is now in question.  Most of them are really Tories anyway and could easily slope off and join Fine Gael (the most pro-British and anti-working class party, and the descendant of the fascist Blueshirt movement of the 1930s); others could join the SDs.  A few of the most ambitious might join FF or even SF.

What this election is confirming is that the changes in the political landscape in the South are deep-rooted and not simply a superficial quirk.  For instance, after the establishment of the Southern state through a violent counter-revolution in 1922-23, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael (and the civil war parties from which they emerged) dominated politics.  FF was the usual party of government, and the only party that could form a government by itself.  FG could only form a government with the LP as junior party, and even that was a relatively rare achievement.  Typically, FF and FG got at least 80% of the vote between them.

For several elections now, FF and FG combined have faced an uphill battle to get 50% between them.  These days the two big bourgeois parties can only muster the support of about 2/5th of voters.  At the same time, many voters have simply stopped bothering to vote, understanding how little there is between the main parties and how worthless electoral promises are.

A mark of the changed political landscape has been the rise of Sinn Fein and the victories for gay marriage and access to abortion in recent referenda.  In 2001 SF got 6.5% of the vote and 5 seats; in 2007, a small increase to 6.9% of the vote but only 4 seats; in 2011, 9.9% of the vote and 14 seats; in 2016, it got 13.8% and 23 seats.  (Initially, SF had a hard time getting transfers, but by 2011 they had become much more ‘respectable’.)

Sinn Fein are far from the radical party of the 1970s and 1980s that identified with ‘revolutionary socialism’ and that was thoroughly interwoven with the Irish Republican Army, which was involved in armed struggle with the British imperialist state.  Today, the IRA is gone – dissolved into SF – and SF itself is a timid, respectable bourgeois-nationalist party whose chief goal is to manage capitalism across a united island.  New Sinn Fein.  In fact, even the united island is probably not crucial now.  They are happily managing Britain’s colonial outpost in the north-east of Ireland and imposing austerity in coalition with the right-wing religious bigots and sectarians of the Democratic Unionist Party.

As SF has shifted rightwards, much of its old working class republican-left members have departed and it has been recruiting the kind of liberal middle class people who wouldn’t have touched it back when it was, with the IRA, the vanguard of the struggle for Irish national and social liberation.  As the politics have changed, the class character of SF has changed; and as the class character has changed the politics have changed further.  A comrade of mine mentioned to me recently having been chatting to a Sinn Fein PRO.   He told my comrade that there were still a few republicans in the party but that they (the PRO and people like him, who are now the majority) are forcing republicans out.  He had originally been going to join the SDs and had only joined SF after Adams had retired and MaryLou McDonald taken over as leader!  (Of course, McDonald herself was anointed by Adams; he wanted someone ‘untainted’ by “the struggle”.)

SF is super-promiscuous in terms of southern politics.  They have said they would happily go into coalition with either Fine Gael, the merger of the party of the 1922-23 counter-revolution and the 1930s Irish fascists, or Fianna Fail, the long-dominant nationalist party which has overseen substantial repression and even executions of Irish republicans.  Sadly for the SF opportunists, neither FF nor FG want them, although that could change.  However, in recent years FF and FG,  traditional enemies going back to civil war days, have been forced into collaborating, as their vote has shrunk.  The Greens have been happy to coalesce with both in the past and, before Fine Gael and Labour launched their assault on the working class in 2011, it was Fianna Fail and the Greens who were imposing severe austerity.

Whereas in NZ, the working class decided not to fight back and Labour retained a large amount – although still only a minority – of working class support – in the Southern state in Ireland it was different.  There was massive opposition to austerity and in the 2011 election Fianna Fail, which had received the largest number of votes in every election since 1932, was decimated, losing five-sevenths of its seats, while the Greens lost all their seats.  The incoming Fine Gael-Labour coalition then upped the attacks, imposing first a Household Tax, which they only managed to do by taking it straight out of people’s pay packets, and then a Water Tax.  However to tax water they needed to get meters in the ground.  Many working class areas physically resisted the attempts by Irish Water to put in the meters, people refused to register for the tax or pay it.  And in the 2016 election Labour was near-obliterated.

It has been this working class movement of resistance that has allowed the growth of Sinn Fein, which poses as an anti-austerity party in the South while implementing austerity in the north, and the small Trotskyist parties which were involved in the anti-austerity movement, as well as a number of left-wing independents.

The decline of the mass movement looks to have halted the growth of the far-left parties, but workers have not forgiven Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour.  The chief beneficiaries have thus been Sinn Fein, although people who believe in them are in for a rude shock should they make it into government in Dublin.

The two encouraging things about this election are that turnout looks to be only 62%, down from an already fairly low 65% in 2016, and that the old voting commitments of many people in the South have become much less fixed.  People are prepared to shift political allegiance more in recent elections.  Old familial party voting loyalties are dissolving.

However, where they shift allegiance to offers no real solutions.  The Trotskyist parties are more and more immersed in electoralist politics.  They don’t use parliament in any sort of radical way – as simply one of a bunch of tools to build mass action in the streets and workplaces.  And SF has long since lost its radicalism and is a complete dead-end.  While a few loonie right-wing types have worked themselves into a later about SF’s success, the “business community” is largely relaxed.

The genuinely radical forces remain the militant republicans.  While the militant republican organisations substantially outnumber the fairly tame Trotskyist groups and the small Communist Party (which is even tamer), they are hopelessly divided, some of them are linked into small armed groups and campaigns which, in the prevailing political conditions across the island, are a hopeless dead-end.  Most of them make the opposite error to the main Trotskyist groups, having electoral abstentionism as a core principle.  The masses are left without a political expression, while a few small left-republican groups like Eirigi continuously face an uphill struggle.

The best thing that could happen now would be the organisation of a serious conference of groups like Eirigi, Saoradh, RNU, the 32CSM, the IRSP and Socialist Democracy – groups that identify with Marxism and which recognise the centrality of the national question to the Irish Revolution – to hammer out what happened to “the struggle” that took place from the late 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement, how Marxists/left-republicans can work together to build a new movement for national, social, economic and cultural liberation that avoids the errors of past.  At the same time, the split culture – leaving an organisation because you disagree with one thing! – has to be rejected.

We need a socialist-republican movement, with a lively culture of political education and political debate.  It won’t be easy – but it does need to be argued for.  There is a potential mass constituency – and I’m not talking abut electoralism – for revolutionary politics.  We have to find a way to cohere it.

Philip Ferguson is a former Sinn Fein activist in Dublin, and a former organiser in the campaign against the extradition of people wanted for IRA offences in the north of Ireland and Britain.

Sinn Fein, 535,595 votes (24.5%), 37 seats
Fianna Fail, 484,320 (22.2%), 38 seats
Fine Gael, 455,584 (20.0%), 35 seats
Greens, 155,700 (7.1%), 12 seats
Labour, 95,588 (4.4%), 6 seats
Social Democrats,  63,404 (2.9%), 6 seats
Solidarity/People Before Profit, 57,420 (2.6%), 5 seats
Aontu, 41,614 (1.9%), 1 seat
Independents 4 Change, 8,421 (0.4%), 1 seat

In addition, 19 Independents were elected.

Some further reading:

Southern Irish elections will confirm new political cycle (2016)

Labour receives massive drubbing in southern Irish general election (2016)

The class struggle is the source of the national struggle (2015)

Irish society and politics and the referendum on gay marriage (2015)

Working class resists war tax in south of Ireland (2014)

And further, see the Redline category, Ireland.


  1. Excellent article. Very informative, with a sharp Marxist/revolutionary republican analysis and outline for moving forward.

  2. Cheers Phil. At Redline we tend to avoid having ‘lines’ on other people’s struggles. Because I was very heavily involved in Sinn Fein for a number of years and continue to have active interests over in Ireland, and visit there regularly, I did say something about the road forward, in a general sense though rather than trying to work out in detail what to do from 10,00 miles away. Only people who are there and doing the doing can really work out precisely what to do.

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