The party has sanitised its image by accepting the status quo
Between 1988 and 1994, British broadcasters were banned from airing the voices of Sinn Fein politicians on TV and radio. Thirty years later, The Financial Times appraised the party’s Northern Irish leader, Michelle O’Neill, as “personable”, “inoffensive” with a backstory that “inspires sympathy”.
After years of successful reputation-laundering the party is transformed. It holds the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and in 2020 it became the most popular in the Republic, winning 24.5% of the vote. A historic coalition between traditional rivals Fine Gael and Fianna Fail — the two parties that have dominated Irish politics since the state’s inception — was formed to keep Sinn Fein from power. Now even Great Britain is psychologically adapting to the party’s presence. How did an organisation – once led by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, long considered the political arm of the IRA, and still burdened with unsavoury associations – become so mainstream?
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Its success is generally taken as proof that Ireland has finally given in to a latent Left-wing populist nationalism. This is not exactly right. Uniting Ireland might be Sinn Fein’s ultimate lodestar, but it is not the primary source of their electoral appeal. In the Republic, the majority are agnostic on the reunification question.
This contingent is also growing north of the border. Their tax-the-rich promises alarm the country’s wealthiest. And Sinn Fein’s apparently cost-free solutions to complicated economic quagmires raise eyebrows among political realists. They often revert to the rhetorical distinction between the “people” and “elites”. They have capitalised on Dublin’s housing crisis to gain traction with young voters.
But their veneer of Left populism is transparent. They diverge from their supposed counterparts on the continent when it comes to immigration, social policy, and the European Union. In Sinn Fein’s bid to cleanse their chequered past and rid themselves of radical associations, they have succumbed to the cosmopolitan, pro-business sheen of modern Irish politics. The party knows what side Ireland’s financial bread is buttered.
Former leader Gerry Adams said in 1979 that Sinn Fein were “opposed to big business, to multinationalism, to all forms and all manifestations of imperialism and capitalism”. Now its Dublin financial spokesman, Pearse Doherty, assures multinationals that “Sinn Fein isn’t going to go after them”. They toe the line when it comes to the Republic’s low corporate tax rate too — a central tenant of Dublin’s economic policy and a sacred cow in Government Buildings.
And they are riding the wave of Ireland’s recent and rapid social liberalisation. Under new leader Mary Lou McDonald they have adopted an expedient progressive mantle, campaigning hard in the 2015 same sex marriage and 2018 abortion referendums. And though Sinn Fein perhaps once conceived of itself as a natural bedfellow of the Eurosceptic tradition, it is now openly pro-EU. The Republic has staked so much of its national brand on its European identity – Sinn Fein are cautious not to disturb this. And diverging even further from their alleged counterparts on the continent, anti-immigration sentiment does not hold much sway over the party’s platform.
Sinn Fein are not Left-wing outsiders. As they increasingly attempt to emancipate themselves from their militant past, they are cleaving closer and closer to the status quo.