Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Una Mullally: Those attacking Sinn Féin have become cheerleaders in reverse

Irish young people are politicised not by old-fashioned tribalism but along issues

The story of the election so far is without a doubt Sinn Féin’s surge in popularity. While it will be difficult for the party to translate popularity in the polls to seats with exact symmetry, this election will mark the beginning of a shift in power dynamics in the Irish political landscape.

That shift is generational, cultural, and social, and these changes are now being reflected in the party-political space, which is something that responds to changes in society rather than leads them.

There are many reasons for Sinn Féin’s rise, and most of them are overarching rather than scientifically quantifiable. They orientate around sentiment, identity, and, crucially, youth.

Politicians and commentators often disregard the youth vote, saying it doesn’t turn out and is disproportionately radical. Yet that perspective ignores the unique situation in Ireland where a youth-led social revolution changed the country, and moulded it in the image and aspirations of younger people working intergenerationally with like-minded older people.


This desire for rooting oneself in a benign but vibrant and inclusive patriotism dovetails with Sinn Féin's rhetoric

Most of the politics in Ireland in recent years has happened outside of the party system, but inevitably, and gradually, the established political structures will begin to feel that change.

The concerns that politicians and many commentators and journalists have about Sinn Féin don’t seem to matter as much to the electorate. People might cut the backs off Sinn Féin on Kildare Street, they might lay into its finance policies and accuse it of fantasy figures, they might make barbed remarks about the party’s past, but voters are driven more by sentiment than detail, and in fact a party that threatens the establishment being attacked by that establishment may actually lure the Sinn Féin-curious.

Those attacking Sinn Féin have accidentally become cheerleaders in reverse. The power of the underdog is real, and an under-analysed aspect of the Irish electorate is divilment.

Female vote 

I also believe there is a hidden female Sinn Féin vote that is less documented. Young women I speak to who are voting for Sinn Féin cite their admiration for Mary Lou McDonald, her ability to rise above the noise and political pettiness and communicate directly in the media (when she’s invited), and Sinn Féin’s ground game during the Repeal movement.

Nobody mentions the North, the IRA or Gerry Adams. The party has diversified beyond republicanism. For many people the expertise of Eoin Ó Broin and Pearse Doherty are huge assets, while Fine Gael’s “team” come across as the Boys in the Bubble, and Fianna Fáil’s potential ministers are the ghosts of crashes past.

Doherty would do well to include a thank you card along with his legal correspondence to RTÉ. The chip on the shoulder that fervent Sinn Féin supporters have about perceived media bias has been somewhat legitimised by the broadcaster’s decision to frame the election as one of Fine Gael versus Fianna Fáil. Exclusion can be a gift.

It's issues that now form political identities. What matters to you defines who you are online and off

Another boost for Sinn Féin is Fine Gael’s and Fianna Fáil’s insistence that they won’t go into coalition with it. The electorate may start to ask why.

In the past Sinn Féin’s republicanism and desire for a united Ireland was framed as a mainstream turnoff. Yet now these attributes chime with a new generation who reinvented Irish identity.

The degree to which young Irish people are engaging with Irish culture and language, embracing what was deemed unfashionable by their Celtic Tiger-era elders, has coincided with a decade of centenaries, compelling many to revisit the egalitarian aspirations of the republic.

This desire for rooting oneself in a benign but vibrant and inclusive patriotism dovetails with Sinn Féin’s rhetoric (how it made hay from the RIC debacle being a perfect example), along with the nastier consequences of events elsewhere, such as the rise in anti-English sentiment brought about by British political discourse about Ireland, and the conversations about the Border which Brexit raised.

Consistent rise

For now, because of the lack of a cohesive alternative (and short memories), many people will default to Fianna Fáil – the Irish electorate’s id. But look beyond the immediate, and Sinn Féin’s slow and consistent rise is surely not temporary.

They are expert strategists and kings and queens of the long game, and many people veering towards Sinn Féin are now thinking how the party wants them to think.

Irish politics is obsessed with reaching the so-called “middle ground”. But you don’t look to the centre to analyse the drivers of cultural and social change.

Things that were once deemed radical in Irish society – free, safe and legal abortion and LGBT rights – are now completely mainstream. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s cutting edge is non-existent.

A generation of young people in Ireland became politicised not along party lines or old-fashioned tribalism but along issues. It’s issues that now form political identities. What matters to you defines who you are online and off.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are playing 20th century politics with a 21st century electorate. They’ve also been playing a two-person game of pass the parcel with the office of Taoiseach since 1937.

If you’re an 18-year-old voting for the first time the last time Fine Gael wasn’t in power was when you were eight or nine. This stuff gets old. In a superficial way people get bored.

Politics has changed, media has changed, society has changed. And in the coming years perhaps the establishment will also change.