Sinn Fein has asked for a vote on Irish reunification within five years because the prize for joining the government after missing the largest party in the country by only one seat after a historic election.
The left-wing Republican party, which has historical ties with the IRA, stunned pollsters by collecting most of the first preference votes in Saturday’s vote – but ended up with 37 seats for Fianna Fail’s 38 once the backup preference votes were taken over account.
Despite being Ireland’s largest party, the result will be a disappointment for Fianna Fail – one of Ireland’s two most important parties – because it lost six seats compared to the 2016 result.
The result also means a disaster for current Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and his Fine Gael party, which ended with 35 seats, a loss of 15 that is likely to end his leadership career.
Sinn Fein narrowly missed becoming Ireland’s largest party by becoming one seat in the general election, as leader Mary Lou McDonald (photo) demanded a vote on Irish reunification
Sinn Fein won the preferential vote in first place in Saturday’s vote, but ended with 37 seats against Fianna Fail’s 38 after back-up preferences were taken into account
Sinn Fein, meanwhile, is celebrating a historic triumph after taking 14 seats, which means the party has completed its rise from marginal movement to potential leaders of the next government.
Party leader Mary Lou McDonald made it clear on Monday that her goal is to become the next taoiseach – to replace Varadkar – and said she is in talks to “test” the viability of a left coalition without one of the two main parties.
“Sinn Fein won the elections, we won the popular vote … I am very clear that people who came out and voted for Sinn Fein voted for Sinn Fein to be in government,” she added.
Even if Sinn Fein is forced to support another party in the government, McDonald made it clear that her prize will be a referendum on Irish reunification within five years.
She greeted the upset as a “ballot box revolution” and added, “The two-party system in this country is now broken.”
Michelle O’Neil, vice president of Sinn Fein and vice prime minister of Northern Ireland, said: “We want to be in the government in the north and the south.
“Our goal is to provide healthcare, housing and public services. And our goal is to unite this island. “
Micheal Martin, leader of the main opposition party Fianna Fail, celebrates after winning 38 seats in the elections – making his party the largest in Ireland but still losing six seats compared to 2016
The rise of Sinn Fein marks an astonishing victory for a party that was once shunned for its IRA ties and adds Ireland to the growing list of countries around the world that are evading regular politics in search of new national identities.
In a sign of how far the party has come, it is good to remember that former leader Gerry Adams and other party representatives were banned from the air waves in the UK because of violence raging over British rule in Northern Ireland for three decades to 1998 .
But with two decades of peace and a new leader under Mary Lou McDonald, the left-wing policy of Sinn Fein in addressing housing crises and health found favor among voters.
McDonald said the two main parties – Fine Gael and Fianna Fail – were “in a state of denial” and had not listened to the voice of the people.
Prime Minister and leader of Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar, acknowledged the shift to “a three-party system” on Sunday and said conversations between the parties could be lengthy and difficult.
The Fianna Fail party won 22.2 percent of the popular votes and Fine Gael 20.9 percent.
The result almost certainly means an end to Leo Varadkar’s leadership career (photo) after his Fine Gael party lost 15 seats and dropped to third place
“The Irish political system must respond and probably accept that Sinn Fein will be part of the next government,” Eoin O’Malley, associate professor at Dublin City University, told AFP.
Tuesday’s result was all the more striking because Sinn Fein only had 42 candidates.
Analysts suggest that the party would be surprised by its huge popularity and would probably be the largest party if it had proposed a larger slate.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have both ruled out a deal with Sinn Fein because of his earlier associations under Adams, who have long denied claims that he had a leading role in the IRA.
“The Troubles” saw the IRA campaigning against unionist counterparts and British security forces over British rule in Northern Ireland, killing more than 3,000 people on all sides.
McDonald’s policy to address the inequality between prosperity and housing shortage appears to be attractive to younger voters in the 3.3 million EU residents.
Approximately 32 percent of voters aged 18-24 and 25-34 supported the party, according to an exit survey on Saturday.
Former Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams (bottom right) watches while Party President Mary Lou McDonald addresses the National Executive Committee in Dublin
Darren Hart, manager of the coffee shop in Dublin, said it was time for another party to try it after decades of two-party dominance.
“Whether they have a troubled past as a party or not, you know they deserve a chance like everyone else, so why not?” he said.
In a sign of the maritime change in Irish politics, Varadkar himself was beaten to the first seat in his constituency on Sunday.
He took the second of four seats, but it was a sharp symbolic blow on a long night for the Prime Minister, who was first to face the electorate as Prime Minister.
Varadkar – young, openly gay and mixed race – has been seen as the face of a new, more progressive Ireland after referendums that have destroyed the strict abortion laws and same-sex marriage.
Behind the respectable leaders of a modern party, the shadow of the shooter returns
Commentary from Kevin Toolis for the Daily Mail
The historic “wave” of Sinn Fein in this weekend’s election has actually set fire to the entire Irish political establishment. At night, the policy of consensus, compromise and accommodation with British rule in Northern Ireland that has dominated Irish politics for the past 90 years has been abandoned in every way.
As a result, the existence of the Northern Irish state is now more at risk since the aftermath of the Easter uprising of 1916.
And frighteningly, the result has brought the IRA Secret Council close to power in Dublin.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with supporters after topping the poll in Dublin, centrally in the RDS counting center in Dublin, Ireland
Make no mistake, Sinn Fein – the political party of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, of the bomb and the bullet – is still governed by sinister shadow figures from the recent terrorist past.
And it would be in power today if it had only been more ambitious and yielded more election candidates.
The party’s figurehead leader, Mary Lou McDonald, may have already called to Downing Street to demand Irish reunification.
Sinn Fein is now the most popular political party in Ireland and the only party that has election representatives north and south of the border.
The left-wing republican party received 24.5 percent of the vote, compared to 22 percent and 21 percent respectively for the established parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. No party will have sufficient seats for a majority, and before the elections, both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael excluded a coalition with Sinn Fein, referring to its IRA past and high tax policy as deterrents.
That was then – yesterday morning brought a new reality. Discussions to form a coalition will be difficult and lengthy, but whatever the exact composition of the future Irish government is, this is an election that will forever change the destiny of these islands.
Of course the result is a thumping personal humiliation for the former Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, leader of Fine Gael who, in his attempts to be a power player in Europe during the Brexit negotiations, may have focused his eye on the ball longer then he should.
So how was the old order set aside and how was Sinn Fein revived the engine of change?
Ireland has the youngest population in the EU and it was younger voters who put their faith in the newly-made promises of Sinn Fein to solve the problems that concern this age group: a housing crisis, high rents, homelessness, failing health care, crackling tax system that is generally seen as a preference for political guardians and inequality in one of Europe’s best performing economies.
Thomas Gould from Sinn Fein tops the poll and is chosen in Cork North Central, during the Irish General Election count at the Nemo Rangers GAA Club in Cork, Ireland
These voters did not grow up haunted by the problems; for them, Sinn Fein’s ties with the IRA and terrorism were history. Instead, they saw two powerful women – both mothers – at the helm of Sinn Fein: her president Mary Lou McDonald, 50, and her 43-year-old vice president, Michelle O’Neill, who leads Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.
But for two decades I reported on the bloody massacre of problems, bombs, guns and the terrible human costs. I wrote a book about the IRA and spent thousands of hours in the company of IRA shooters and their leaders.
I have never heard regrets or doubts about the costs of blood and pain in pursuing the goal of the IRA. Irish Republicanism is a belief, not a political philosophy.
And behind the slick image of change, Sinn Fein remains the party from the paramilitary past today. The “democratic party” of Sinn Fein is still ruled by a reconstructed IRA Army Council based in Belfast, known as the Ard Chomairle, and the shadowy IRA figures who control every aspect of the policy and rigorously bully and expel everyone, even in their own ranks, which deviates from the leadership line.
This IRA police station never meets in public, holds press conferences or even indicates its true identity as the political executive of the IRA. The democratic debate or the usual personal rivalry of a real political party remains completely alien to Sinn Fein’s own internal policy. Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill may be Sinn Fein postergirls, but they were appointed by an edict in their position and then slavishly approved in North Korean style votes by party membership.
In a robotic way, they continue to clear a line, not far from the opinion of the IRA Army Council that the 3,700 murders of the problems and countless IRA atrocities are all the fault of the British government and that the answer to all problems of Ireland is the immediate reunification of the island.
Irish Fianna Fail party leader Micheal Martin after voting in the Irish general election in Ballinlough, near Cork, Ireland
This rigid Stalinist control from above, and the demand for indisputable obedience to the IRA version of history, had always prevented Sinn Fein from attracting a younger generation of politically skilled recruits south of the border until this weekend.
Now McDonald (and behind the scenes her IRA bosses) will play a key role as a coalition partner with Fianna Fail or as a kingmaker – and I believe that real power and the prospect of a handful of ministerial posts in the next Irish government means that Sinn Fein is definitely will attract more regular support that will move the center of Irish politics to the republican cause.
Even outside the government, such a large block of Sinn Fein members in the Irish parliament will effectively deliver a political veto.
With regard to trade, the Brexit, the border and the European Union, any future Dublin government will dance to the tune of Sinn Fein or run the risk of being betrayed by the will of the Irish people. Or fall out of power by a voice without confidence.
And every setback, every political skirmish with Downing Street on Brexit, will be rearranged into a hostile nationalist agenda for the British administration.
Nor will Dublin probably spend so much energy reconciling the endless demands and insults of the DUP in the North just to preserve the fragile political peace in Stormont. Why bother? Sinn Fein does not believe that Northern Ireland should exist primarily as a state.
In reality, as a political party, Sinn Fein has only one agenda: Irish reunification. And they will now relentlessly pursue this goal, regardless of the price.
Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar addresses the media when he arrives Sunday for the counting of the Irish general election at the Phibblestown Community Center in Dublin
The first point on the political agenda of Sinn Fein is probably their demand for a border poll. As the Catholic population of Northern Ireland has grown, the gap with the Protestant majority has narrowed. There is a possibility that there is already a majority in Northern Ireland for a united Ireland.
But in Dublin government circles so far, even the possibility of such a poll has been seen as nothing more than a political stunt designed to provoke violent opposition from loyalists in Northern Ireland and endanger the entire peace process.
That has all changed.
Strengthened by what they see as the tide of history on their backs, it is unlikely that Sinn Fein, with the help of their newly found electoral figures, will be deterred regardless of the cost of making their republican dream come true.
Ireland’s problems are far from over – and the shadow of a shooter is once again the most powerful force in Irish politics.
Kevin Toolis is the author of Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA’s Soul