Bertie Ahern, who was the taoiseach (prime minister) of the Irish Republic from 1997 to 2008, was a brilliant machine politician, not a nationalist or an ideologist. In fact, if you said the word ‘principle’ in his presence, he might have to look up the meaning. But here’s what he said after the Sinn Féin Party came first in last week’s Irish election.
“I think a border poll (on the unification of the Republic and Northern Ireland, which is currently part of the United Kingdom) is inevitable. If you ask me when that is, I think it’s probably five years off at least … but it will be inevitable over this decade.” Are we about to see the final, peaceful solution to the 400-year-old ‘Irish problem’?
Not necessarily, but the long, frozen stability of Irish politics both north and south of the border is definitely dissolving. In Northern Ireland the Catholics have finally achieved the ‘revenge of the cradle,’ displacing the Protestants as the majority population – at a time when, coincidentally, the turmoil of Brexit is making all the old certainties about the province’s ties to the UK open to question.
In the south, independent from the UK for a century and home to almost three-quarters of the island’s 6.6 million people, almost everybody is of Catholic heritage and matters have long seemed more settled. Politics was dominated by two centre-right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, neither of which gave more than lip-service to the notion of unification with the North.
Nobody in the Republic wanted to hear about that. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ years (ca. 1995-2008) had finally made the Republic a prosperous place, after a long history of genteel poverty. Most of its citizens had no desire to see a united Ireland if it risked bringing the North’s chronic violence (‘The Troubles,’ 1968-1999) to the south as well.
In these circumstances Sinn Féin, an all-Ireland leftist and nationalist party that operated as the political front of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the ‘Troubles,’ had little attraction for voters in the Republic. It was Northern-dominated and linked to terrorism, and both of the major parties in Dublin refused to have anything to do with it.
And now, suddenly, Sinn Féin ends up with more votes than any other party in the Republic. What happened?
This political revolution is not driven by Irish nationalism. Few of the people who voted for Sinn Féin cared much about the North, or unification, or any of that old stuff.
They voted for Sinn Féin because they were fed up with high rents, housing shortages and long hospital waiting lists. Their only alternative was to vote for the same two old parties that have been passing power back and forth for a hundred years, so they ignored Sinn Féin’s IRA links and voted for it anyway.
Those links recently became easier to ignore because Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin’s leader for 35 years and simultaneously a senior officer in the IRA (though he always denied it) finally retired in 2018. His successor, Mary Lou McDonald, definitely has no blood on her hands, and she was born in the Republic, not in the North. She’s voter-friendly, not scary, and she got the votes.
Irish politics is clearly now a three-horse race, in the sense that Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael each got between 21 per cent and 25 per cent of the vote. But that leaves each of them with fewer than half the seats they would need for a majority in the Dáil (parliament).
Prospects for viable coalition-making were looking grim after the election, with both traditional major parties saying they would never enter a coalition with Sinn Féin. The only viable alternative was yet another deal between the two traditional major parties – but that is what the voters had just revolted against.
Now it’s looking a little saner, with Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil saying that he’s open to talks with Sinn Féin. But the sheer tribal truculence of Irish politics is embodied in the very names of the Republic’s major parties: ‘Ourselves Alone’ (Sinn Féin), ‘Tribe of the Irish’ (Fine Gael), and ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ (Fianna Fáil ).
It will therefore take some time to make a deal, but one will be reached eventually, and it will probably include a place for Sinn Féin. Mary Lou McDonald said it plainly – “We are going to have a unity referendum” – and Fintan O’Toole, the best Irish political commentator of his generation, explained what that means in his column in the Irish Times.
“(The voters) have gone where they were warned not to go,” he wrote, “and in doing so they have redrawn the map of Irish politics to include territory previously marked ‘Here Be Dragons.’”