Sinn Féin surge driven by younger urban voters

Promise of change as well as housing and taxation policies appeal to key demographic

Although Sinn Féin has stuttered in recent days in response to the controversy over the murder of Paul Quinn, the party and its leader have ridden the wave of a mighty desire for change during this general election campaign, particularly from younger voters.

Last October, the party was polling at 14 per cent in the Irish Times-Ipsos MRBI series .

By mid-January, this had jumped to 21 per cent; by end of last week, it had soared to 25 per cent.

The increases were driven by a surge in support for the party among younger urban voters, who has responded in unprecedented numbers to the Sinn Féin message and its leader.


That this has caught Sinn Féin as much by surprise as everyone else is neither here nor there, except in the sense that its modest pre-election expectations led to the party running too few candidates for its current level of support.

Look at the numbers. Sinn Féin has jumped from 17 per cent to 27 per cent among under 25s since October. Among 25-to-34 year olds, the party has risen from 23 to 32 per cent. And among 35-49 year olds, the jump has been massive – from 13 per cent to 30 per cent.

But the Sinn Féin appeal is not based just on a general message of change. While the “change” rhetoric appeals to key swing voters certainly – in a demographic that has become de-aligned from traditional party loyalties – it is also based on a mix of policies specifically designed to appeal to these voters.

Inevitable risks

So what has Sinn Féin done to attract the younger vote? And what would their programme mean for other groups – some of whom would be asked to pay more to fund extra spending – and for the economy, where the scale of change planned carries inevitable risks?

Sinn Féin’s housing policy is central to its approach – and it has sought to appeal directly to younger voters.

This strategy reflects a changing pattern of living in Ireland. We have moved from a nation of homeowners in the 1980s – where private rental was a temporary state – to one where the latest census showed 36 per cent of people were renting in urban areas. And to a society where the normal life cycle of home buying and paying off a mortgage seems to be breaking down.

By the 2016 census, the age at which more people owned a home than rented was 35 – as recently as 2006, it was 28. And only by age 41 did two thirds of people own rather than rent. With house prices and rents rising in the meantime, the age of average home-buying will have risen further – and so the group feeling trapped by higher rents has grown sharply and covers a wider age range. Many feel they will never afford to own their own home, no matter what tax incentives or help-to-buy schemes are offered.

Sinn Féin has targeted this group via policies aimed first at renters, including a three-year rent freeze and a tax credit offering an average of one month’s rent back. Its housing spokesman, Eoin Ó Broin, has also put forward a switch in the house-building programme to prioritise State-led building largely via local authorities.

Planning process

Its programme promises 100,000 “public homes on public land” over the next five years. Delivering on this would be a massive challenge given the scale of current local authority building, the shortage of construction workers at all levels, and the planning process. But the idea of the State providing those homes has clearly chimed with many of those “locked out” voters.

Sinn Féin also calls for bigger State involvement in other key areas for younger voters too – and here it may appeal also to those already owning a home. For exmaple, it believes that childcare should transition over a period into a “fully-fledged public service” with fees “slashed” by 66 per cent. It also calls for extended maternity and paternity leave.

The party – along with others – has also identified insurance as a key area for its target group, promising a reform programme and the abolition of the existing levies on non-life policies And its tax policies are firmly aimed at lower-paid voters – many of them also younger voters – centered on a proposal to abolish the USC charge on the first €30,000 of earnings.

The radical level of extra spending and these tax cuts mean the tax increases in the Sinn Féin manifesto are at a different level to any others – and are generally stacked on higher earners and big businesses.

These include hikes aimed at multinationals and the banks – though not SMEs – including a big hike in employee PRSI on incomes over €100,000.

Income tax credits

On income tax, the current income tax credits are to be phased out on incomes over €100,000 and a new 5 per cent level imposed on earnings over €140,000, bringing the marginal tax rate for this group to 57 per cent.

These plan raises two questions. First, can the extra tax revenues be achieved? And, secondly, what is the knock-on impact?

Business group IBEC has warned that these measures would have a “grave” impact on Ireland’s attraction for business investment – and its political opponents say that its plan would seriously endanger economic growth.

Under Sinn Féin’s strategy, a higher portion of the tax burden would fall on business and the higher earners, leading to potential volatility – as both groups are mobile – and narrowing of the tax base.

Sinn Féin proposes to narrow the base further by ditching the local property tax and arguing against any further rise in the carbon tax – though it does favour a new wealth tax and a hike in inheritance tax from 33 per cent to 36 per cent. The party insists that it plans to keep the exchequer in surplus.

It is impossible to be precise about what this mix of planned higher spending and higher taxes in some sectors would mean for growth, or the public finances in the long term.

A range of measures in the manifesto are specifically aimed at large multinationals – the bulk of which are from the US, who could change their tax and investment options in response to a dramatic change in government policy.

More change inevitably means higher risk – but for a group of younger voters who feel excluded from the current economic system, the risk may well feel worth taking.