Kevin Cunningham: The rise and rise of Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin is now the biggest political party in the Dáil, and pollsters say, the most popular. How and why?
Kevin Cunningham: The rise and rise of Sinn Féin

The Sinn Féin voter may be characterised as displaying the three features of: left-wing, populist, and economically disaffected. Photo: Gareth Chaney / Collins Photos

As of this month, all four public opinion polling companies place Sinn Féin as the most popular political party in the state. Further emphasising the party’s newfound dominance, Marc MacSharry’s resignation makes Sinn Féin the largest political party in Dáil Éireann.

Having increased their vote share in each of the last eight general elections the obvious question is: How has a political party so connected to some of the biggest atrocities on this island become so popular? 

Has fervent nationalism gripped the nation? Or are younger voters naively unaware of the Troubles? Or is there some malevolent campaign machine or social media strategy behind this development?

None of these common explanations is satisfactory: Firstly, support for a united Ireland is relatively unchanged in 20 years; Secondly, the 2020 general election exit poll revealed that Sinn Féin was the most popular party even among those aged 45 to 54 and 55 to 64; and thirdly there is no evidence in political science that campaign machines can have such a radical impact on voting behaviour.

There are two ways of responding to the rise of Sinn Féin – one is to infantilise their supporters with the array of excuses above, and the other is to attempt to understand the motivations of what now amounts to one in three voters.

In support of the latter, polling data points to three key drivers in support for Sinn Féin, which I will explain in turn.

Changing demographics

Firstly, the changing demographics of Ireland. From the 1950s to 1980s in every other European country, left-wing parties enjoyed 30% to 55% of the vote. In Ireland however, the left could only muster 15% of the vote. 

As the collective support for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael declined, their beneficiaries have changed over time: Labour, the Progressive Democrats, the Green Party, Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats, in each case representing a more secular Ireland.

The lack of industrialisation or the presence of Fianna Fáil has often been used to explain the poor support for left-wing parties. An extensive academic literature (e.g. Stegmueller) suggests that religion plays a key role. 

It shows that typical working-class voters with a strong religious identity are often not in favour of redistributive economic policies and tend to support right wing parties. 1980s Ireland and 2020s Ireland couldn’t be more different in this regard. 

Chart courtesy of Dr Kevin Cunningham
Chart courtesy of Dr Kevin Cunningham

In 1983 when the 8th amendment was introduced, eight of 10 people attended church on a weekly basis. By 2018 this fell to two out of 10. As religion, party loyalty and to some extent homeownership has declined, the share of the population open to voting for an overtly left-wing political party has dramatically increased. 

In 1980 just 16% of the population placed themselves on the ‘left’. This compares sharply with today where 38% place themselves on the left. Sinn Féin has certainly benefitted from this as their supporters overwhelmingly place themselves on the left.

This fact is sometimes met with significant surprise. Indeed, for many years the typical Sinn Féin voter was viewed as a young, disaffected male and the type of voter that in another jurisdiction might be attracted to a far-right political party. 

Populism

Although that caricature is no longer true the second and strongest driver of Sinn Féin support remains their proclivity towards populism. 

And by populism I do not mean that the party advocates for popular policies, rather what political science means by the term is a proclivity towards distrusting political institutions.  A sentiment that distrusts politicians and often the media, perceiving there to be relatively higher levels of corruption. 

Chart courtesy of Dr Kevin Cunningham
Chart courtesy of Dr Kevin Cunningham

At the last general election voters were asked whether they agreed with the idea that ‘most politicians are trustworthy’. Among those that strongly disagreed with this Sinn Féin won over half of the vote. 

Similarly, when asked about levels of corruption in politics Sinn Féin won over half of those that believed corruption to be ‘very widespread’. While we tend to associate populist views with right wing views on immigration, Sinn Féin supporters are relatively evenly balanced on this issue. Though it is worth noting still that they don’t align with traditional left wing views on the topic.

Income

The obvious question is then – how left-wing are these voters if they’re not particularly liberal when it comes to social issues such as immigration. And the answer to this and the third driver of Sinn Féin support is that Sinn Féin’s left-wing ideology is rooted in the economic circumstances of their supporters. 

Hidden within the aggregated economic statistics of Ireland’s relatively successful economic model is the fact that some are not doing as well as others and it is these voters that are supporting Sinn Féin in their droves.

At the last general election four out of 10 voters stated that they were financially worse off compared to the previous year. Of these voters 39% supported Sinn Féin while 8% supported Fine Gael. Sinn Féin support is thus concentrated among working-class voters and those on middle and lower incomes. 

Chart courtesy of Dr Kevin Cunningham
Chart courtesy of Dr Kevin Cunningham

Those earning over €60k per annum are very unlikely to support the party. In this context we also observe that when asked about the redistribution of income, Sinn Féin voters are the most supportive of all obvious left-wing issues.

While our taxation system is highly effective at reducing inequality it also conceals a chasm between lower and higher incomes. With the third-highest rate of low-paid workers in the European Union and levels of social mobility indistinguishable from those of the UK there is undoubtedly a relatively rigid class-system emerging in Ireland.

So, the Sinn Féin voter may be characterised as displaying the three features of: left-wing, populist, and economically disaffected and with significant overlap between these features. It is however too early to assume with certainty that Sinn Féin will win the next general election. 

It is true that the party holds two distinct advantages as the largest opposition party and representing what might constitute as ‘change’. However, there are also limitations, as there are few indications that supporters of Sinn Féin are particularly loyal to the party or its leadership team. 

When asked why people supported Sinn Féin in open-ended text responses, most cited either an opposition to Fianna Fáil-and-Fine Gael or a desire to see change. Very few cited any particularly positive attribute one might associate with Sinn Féin. 

In this vein, with wavering loyalties populism can be a double-edged sword. The only other successful left-wing populist party that recently came to prominence was Unidos Podemos in Spain which after winning 24.5% in the 2015 Spanish general election and eventually going into government is today polling a distant fourth on 10%. 

Of course, Sinn Féin is a completely different political party to Podemos, and Irish politics is sufficiently unique but much like the last election until the election itself is officially called all bets are off.

  • Dr Kevin Cunningham is a lecturer in politics at TU Dublin and statistician with Ireland Thinks.

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