Young people are the real winners in Ireland's election

This weekend's Irish election saw a historic political upheaval, and embrace of left-wing politics. Against a backdrop of housing crisis, widespread inequality and lack of opportunity, it was evidence that the country's youth has had enough.

by Brian O'Flynn
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11 February 2020, 2:05pm

On Saturday in Ireland, something big happened. Sinn Féin, a party historically on the fringes of the political system in the Republic, captured almost 25% of first preferences in our country’s general election. Their historic victory was in no small part thanks to young Irish people rallying behind the leftist party, against a backdrop of acute inequality in Ireland.

For decades the country has been run by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, both parties of the centre right. While Ireland have a small Labour party, linked to trade unions, their coalition with Fine Gael, and support for austerity and introduction of water charges, has been perceived as a betrayal of the workers. Their vote share has been gutted to 4%. The Fine Gael dominance has overseen a crisis of homelessness and extortionate rental prices -- domestic issues so bad they frequently make international headlines -- while the country has cemented its status as a multinational tax haven. The horror reached fever pitch a few weeks ago, when a homeless man was grievously injured by a government crane which picked him up while inside his tent.

But, perhaps thanks to recent devastating election results in Britain and America, many young people still doubted whether change would come. Labour is a pariah, while the most ardently left parties (People Before Profit, Social Democrats) all receive tiny percentages of the popular vote, never enough to form a government. Sinn Féin, discounted by many, emerged as the unlikely antidote.

Though it is leftist, the party has historically been shunned in the Republic because of its past associations with the IRA. Until 1994, interviews with Sinn Féin were banned on the national broadcaster, and its vote share in the Republic has traditionally been negligible. Despite new leadership in the form of Mary Lou McDonald, many boomers still view voting for the party as taboo: “I had to lie to my family and say they wouldn’t be my first preference” says Alex, a 26-year-old from Louth.

But young people, like Alex, still voted for them in their droves. In the end, Sinn Féin was the winner of the popular vote in every age bracket up to 65 -- but they had their highest share among 18-34 year olds. It became the first time in the history of the state that a left-wing party had beaten both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in the popular vote.

Despite its traditional electoral marginality, the main memories of politics for Irish millennials and Gen Z have been those of ground-shaking leftist triumphs. The first time some 18-25 year olds voted was in the marriage equality referendum in 2015, where they won in a 2:1 landslide. The feat was repeated in 2018's abortion rights referendum. For a contingent of politicised young Irish people, canvassing, protesting and winning for the left are the only political acts they know.

“I think the referenda empowered the younger generation to think their vote matters”, Alex continues. “Despite the fact that the mainstream media, FF, and FG continue to patronise us. We’ve been tossed between the two centre-right parties since the foundation of the state, and Sinn Féin felt like the strongest party to break us from that pattern”.

While this generation knew Sinn Féin’s history, the consensus seems to be that the suffering all around them pressed far more urgently on their minds. “Thousands homeless, starving, and hopeless is not a kind of violence we can accept from our government,” says Séan O’Donnell, another young Sinn Féin voter. “Donegal is the poorest county in Ireland, no rail links, the worst hospital in Ireland. Everyone is sick of being ignored.”

Sean grew up in the border-straddling county of Donegal, and was acutely aware of the violence of The Troubles in Northern Ireland while growing up. “Being from a border county, you abhor the violence that ended lives of people from school, the pub, wherever," he says. "But those young people who are disillusioned with politics felt the weight of their duty this time. Almost everyone I spoke to in Donegal was already voting Sinn Féin.”

Before the vote, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar insisted that he would never form a coalition with Sinn Féin, and repeated concerns about its questionable past -- but it seemed young people everywhere simply weren’t buying it. Youth rallied online around the hashtags #VoteLeftTransferLeft, (referring to the single transferable vote system where you transfer your vote down an ordered list of preferences) and strategised about the potential of a rainbow left coalition between Sinn Féin and a string of smaller left parties and independents.

Young voters engaged with history but made up their own minds about it: “I’ve always voted People Before Profit, but I realised if I wanted a real left alternative to Fine Gael it had to be Sinn Féin, in terms of numbers,” says 25-year-old Helen Moynihan from Cork. “I knew they could bring material change. I’m wary of their history but they have brilliant spokespeople like Eoin Ó’Broin who reassure me, so I’m willing to trust them.”

The collapse of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail’s voter base, and the equal and opposite rise of Sinn Féin, shows a country rebalancing its scales. "This is no longer a two-party system," declared the victorious Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou, while Leo Varadkar failed to reach the quota for re-election in his constituency until the fifth count (the first time in the history of the state that the outgoing Taoiseach hasn’t topped his local poll), and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy failed even on the final count to be re-elected, regaining his seat by default.

The message of rejection was clear: “My family voted Sinn Féin to let the government know the devastating harm they have done to people in Ireland,” says Étáin Sweeney, 21, from Leitrim. “Successive governments have failed the most vulnerable.”

“I voted Sinn Féin for the first time,” says Hazel Nolan, 22, from Dublin. “I always respected their anti-colonial policies but I feel this time round, with Mary Lou McDonald as leader, they’re more accessible. I feel like we hold their past to such a high regard, constantly forcing them to answer for it, whereas we don’t speak of the pain and destruction that so many of FF and FG’s policies have caused, from the banking crisis to the current housing and homelessness crisis.”

As the UK media scrambles to contextualise what’s going on over the water, many are predictably attempting to frame Sinn Féin’s rise as a nationalist, reactionary response to the threat of Brexit. The truth, as revealed by exit polls, is that Brexit and immigration were non-issues in this election: only 1% cited them as deciding factors. The two primary concerns on voters’ minds entering the booths were housing and healthcare. The Republic seems far more concerned by the gaping inequality that has carved up our own country, than by Boris Johnson’s embarrassing flailing in Westminster or by the nationalist sentiment that’s buoying him.

Young people were not duped into voting. The fact is that the party they showed up for over the weekend promise to deliver public housing, rent freezes and a reduced pension age. Their popularity, particularly among young people, signals a structural shift in the Irish political system -- the shift to a new paradigm, where the economic centre-right in Ireland finally has a robust left to challenge it. The reason for this weekend's result, and Sinn Féin's popularity among Irish young people, is not nationalism. It's socialism.

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