December 20, 2023 - 4:00pm

In the wake of last month’s Dublin riots, migration in Ireland could prove a roadblock for Sinn Féin’s electoral success. 

The party comprises two similarly sized factions — progressives and traditionally working-class nationalists — which are diametrically opposed to one another on the issue of immigration. To paper over this division, Sinn Féin has tried to fudge matters by portraying itself as the party of law and order, without really addressing the problem at its root. Having got away with past efforts to liberalise Ireland’s immigration policy, its stance is now coming under greater scrutiny.

This is because recent polling shows that three in four Irish people believe that the country is taking in too many refugees. This is heavily pronounced among Sinn Féin supporters, with over 80% sharing the view. As a result, the party is now haemorrhaging support: although it remains the most popular party in Ireland, Sinn Féin took a three percentage point hit in the immediate aftermath of the riots (down to 28%). In contrast it recorded a 34% approval rating at the end of last year. 

As support for Sinn Féin has fallen, support for the party closest to representing a Right-wing faction in Dáil Éireann has increased, with Independent, mainly rural and populist, politicians recording a gargantuan surge of 13%. Following the riots, the Rural Independents tabled a motion calling for a cap on migration. The rise in support also includes “other” parties not mentioned, but may consist of the country’s smaller Right-wing movements not represented in Parliament, such as the Irish Freedom Party.

Members of Sinn Féin are certainly concerned about this, with internal party polling in central Dublin showing that the party is unlikely to increase its vote share on the city council. What’s more, it will possibly lose seats to immigration-sceptic candidates in local elections next year. 

Understanding the threat on the horizon, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald gave a candid interview at the weekend in which she denounced attempts to “repress the conversation” around immigration, adding, “I think there has to be space for people to ask questions […] because I think if we’re not in that space, if we’re saying ‘you shall not speak on this subject’, what’s that achieving?”

It is taken as an article of faith that Sinn Féin will emerge from the next general election as kingmaker in the subsequent government. Despite the talk of a “Left government” comprising the party and smaller legions of disparate Left-wing factions within the Dáil, the party knows it has a delicate balancing act to maintain. Adopting a more hardline immigration stance would risk alienating its younger, more liberal wing. However, if it doubles down like Ireland’s other Left-wing parties — from which it may need help to form a government — in calling for further liberalisation of immigration, it risks abandoning its older, fervently nationalist wing. 

How it grapples with these opposing electoral stakeholders will be crucial heading into the next general election in 2025. As immigration grows increasingly central to politics in the Republic, Sinn Féin’s omertà won’t be able to last.

Theo McDonald is a writer based in Ireland.