Sinn Féin makes history as it becomes largest party in Republic of Ireland’s election

Republicans break decades of domination by centre-right parties, propose to progress towards “securing” Irish unity referendum

May Lou McDonald (left) withMichelle O'Neill (right), party's vice president and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.
May Lou McDonald (left) withMichelle O'Neill (right), party's vice president and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.
Sinn Féin emerged for the first time in history the largest party in a general election in the Republic of Ireland, overtaking the two centre-right parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) that have dominated Irish politics since independence. The republican party has won the vote under a left-wing manifesto that proposes to begin a gradual process towards “securing” a referendum on Irish unity.

Sinn Féin won 24.5% of the first preference votes, followed by Fianna Fáil (22.5%) and prime minister Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael (20.9%). The latter parties have led all of Ireland’s governments since the proclamation of the Republic, a fact that gives an idea of the historic scope of the 8 February election.

Behind them, the Green Party won 7% of the vote, the Labour Party 4.4%, the Social Democrats 2.9%, Solidarity-PBP 2.6%, and Aontú 1.9%. Independent candidates secured 12.2% of the votes.

Elections in the Republic of Ireland are held under an electoral system known as the “single transferable vote”, in which each voter ranks standing candidates according to his or her own preference. When, in the count, the voter’s favourite candidate has already been elected or eliminated, the vote is transferred to his or her second favourite candidate, and so on until all the seats in each constituency —between 3 and 5— are allocated.

This system, and the fact that parties do not field as many candidates as seats are at stake, means that the party with the most votes does not necessarily end up with the most seats. This is what is likely to happen in this election, in which Sinn Féin only fielded 42 candidates for 159 seats at stake. Thus, Fianna Fáil is expected to emerge as the largest party in Parliament, with Sinn Féin in second place and Fine Gael in third.

Complex government formation

Several scenarios now open up for government formation.

One, that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael agree, for the first time in history, on a centre-right grand coalition to block Sinn Féin from entering the government.

Two, that Fianna Fáil agree to a deal with Sinn Féin. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had said during the election campaign that they would not each a deal with the republicans, but now Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin is not ruling it out.

Three, that Sinn Féin can build a left-wing majority with Labour, Social Democrats, Greens and some independents. This will depend on how many seats will eventually go to those smaller parties, according to vote transfers as explained above.

The third option is, from the outset, the one preferred by Sinn Féin, but party president, Mary Lou McDonald has called on the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to sit down and negotiate with her to form a government.

Of those two parties, an agreement with Fianna Fáil would probably be the most viable, although not without difficulties. Sinn Féin will likely demand investments in the public sector and a credible commitment to advance preparations for reunification. In return, they could support Martin’s candidacy to lead the government.

Reunification: a “process” ultimately leading to a referendum

Sinn Féin’s election manifesto includes a commitment by the party, if it forms a government, to “secure” a referendum on Irish unity. It does not commit, however, to a vote being held during their first term in government —in fact it could not, as only the UK government has the power to call a unity vote.

The republican party’s manifesto warns that the road to the vote will be long. The document proposes that the Irish government should lead a preparatory process that analyses the costs and benefits of reunification and “establish a forum to which all are invited and none are excluded,” including Northern Ireland’s unionists.

Sinn Féin advocates the creation of a parliamentary committee on unity, the establishment of a “citizens’ assembly” with representatives from the north and south to discuss the issue, the publication of a White Paper on Irish Unity, and, after this is done, the holding of a referendum.

Fianna Fáil’s manifesto contains a more moderate commitment to that, where it talks about “a formal study and cross-community consultation” on how the Irish government should approach the issue of re-unification, without giving any details about the referendum itself. Labour also speaks of a “public conversation on the future of Ireland.”

Fine Gael’s manifesto explicitly opposes a border poll being held at this moment. The Green Party does not even mention the issue.

In this analysis published in Nationalia on the occasion of Brexit, professor Carles Ferreira explained that Sinn Féin is giving itself a one-decade deadline in order to secure the referendum, and warned that, by now, the preference of the Northern Irish population seems to be for autonomy within the United Kingdom.

According to the Good Friday Agreement (1998), the holding of a referendum on Irish unity depends on whether the UK secretary of State for Northern Ireland believes that there is reasonable ground to believe that a majority of Northern Irish citizens may wish to leave the UK to join the Republic of Ireland.

Prior to the Brexit referendum, most opinion polls showed that a very strong majority in Northern Ireland against reunification with the Republic of Ireland existed. After the vote on leaving from the EU, differences have narrowed, with some polls even showing that re-unification could be the winning option.