Ireland has given its own twist to the populist uprisings across Europe, with its election ushering in a grim time for Anglo-Irish relations. The results from Saturday's poll – in which Sinn Fein took 24.5 per cent of the vote; Fianna Fáil, 22 per cent; and Fine Gael, 21 per cent – could also cause serious complications in the Brexit negotiations.
In so enthusiastically switching its support to Sinn Fein (the party won 13.8 per cent of the vote in 2016), Ireland is endorsing a party that pretends to be democratic, left-wing and progressive but still effectively operates internally along militaristic lines, tolerating no dissent from its elected representatives. As the Irish journalist Eoghan Harris put it yesterday: “Sinn Fein is the only European party with an armed wing – marking us out as a rogue democracy.”
Sinn Fein is a party intent on rewriting the history of the Troubles to represent the IRA’s squalid sectarian campaign preposterously as a struggle for human rights against foreign oppressors, which ultimately became a peace movement. Yet through lawfare and culture warfare it has been determinedly seeking to demoralise Unionists by eroding the Britishness of Northern Ireland. At leadership level, it is dominated by the obsession to bring about a united Ireland by any means available, which includes the exploitation of the culture of victimhood and the fomenting of Anglophobia at every opportunity. Like the SNP in Scotland, it uses nationalism to cover up its failures in government in Northern Ireland.
On one level, the election result is understandable. For almost a century, power has been swapped between the two political parties who became known as Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, whose main distinguishing feature was that they were on opposite sides of the Civil War of 1922-23. Their economic and social policies have rarely diverged much, though when it seems electorally useful, they have edged to the left or right. Latterly, both have accepted fashionable social reforms like abortion and single-sex marriage.
But an electorate deeply worried about housing and health crises far more serious than any we have in the UK, want change, and they want it now. So it’s no surprise that the young in particular embraced a party led by an articulate Mary Lou McDonald and female and young faces that have been swift to spot and exploit the zeitgeist of change. Partition has ensured that few southerners have any grasp of, or indeed interest in, what really went on Northern Ireland. The media are intensely protective of the peace process and discourage criticism of Sinn Fein. And the young weren’t, of course, born during the Troubles. Many seem more excited about transgender rights than about the suffering of tens of thousands who were mentally and physically damaged by sectarian violence during the conflict. These people will be terrified by this election result.
The level pegging in popular votes of what are now the three main parties in the Republic obscure the fact that Sinn Fein had run far fewer candidates than Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. This is Sinn Fein’s election and the party’s brilliance as propagandists and negotiators mean it will miss no tricks. If a coalition proves unattainable, another election would produce a republican landslide.
One way or the other, there will be no stable government in Ireland for possibly months. But a party which opposed the EU bitterly until only a few years ago and which became extremely effective movers and shakers in the corridors of Brussels will be intent on damaging the UK as much as possible.
There are few certainties now. But I’d suggest that this would be a stupid moment to replace Julian Smith, who is one of those rare Northern Ireland secretaries of state who seems to understand those he’s dealing with and have the appetite to take them on.