Ireland After Varadkar

Ready for Sinn Féin

Ireland was long overdue for a shakeup. But Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s resignation this week turned it upside down.

Social justice matters. Dublin, 26 January.

For decades, the Republic’s politics epitomised staid, with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael presiding over a system of homogeneous networks of influence.

Now, the country’s political horizon seems infinitely brighter.

Northern Ireland is in sync, displaying greater instability than the Loyalist hegemony of the last century.

But the situation in the south has provided the most immediate instance of turmoil.

For almost four decades, the Republic of Ireland has been experiencing profound change. The Catholic Church’s dominance has disintegrated, as has the traditionalism bequeathed to the country by Éamon de Valera and Fianna Fáil associates between 1926 and the early 1970s.

Contraception was legalised by referendum in 1985, divorce in 1995, gay marriage in 2015 and abortion (by legislative act) in 2018.

Along the way, Dublin became one of the most gay-friendly cities in Europe. All of this moved Ireland far from a society that routinely imprisoned unwed mothers in institutions (penal in all but name) run by the Catholic Church.

Leo Varadkar is an avatar of the new Ireland.

The first Irish leader to be openly gay and of mixed parentage (his father was born in Mumbai), Varadkar is a political and fiscal conservative representing Fine Gael’s development into a pro-EU centre-right political party.

For the last decade, Fine Gael and long-time opponents Fianna Fáil have been compelled to weather storms of change.

In former times, both parties were defined not so much by their political positions per se but by which prominent figures and real estate developers they counted among their partisans.

Contemporary Irish politics is in the process of a comprehensive reorganisation, driven by the rise of the Green Party and Sinn Féin. The latter has been the most prominent driver of change in Irish politics.

For most of its existence, Sinn Féin had been marginal in the politics of the Republic.

Originating as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), it was both burdened by connections to an insurgent group that was unpopular in the south and limited by the centrality of reunification (not of great concern to southern voters) to its program.

Over the last decade, Sinn Féin has reconfigured itself into a party of the moderate left in the Irish Republic, taking up much of the political space once occupied by the Labour Party and other similar groupings.

In the process, Sinn Féin has involved itself in struggles over issues like rent, water reform, and economic issues, which have won the support of younger voters uninterested in the game of thrones long played by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

In the most recent legislative elections, Sinn Féin garnered 24.% of the vote, increasing its representation in the Dáil by 14 seats (to 37) and putting it in a virtual tie with Fianna Fáil. Varadkar’s Fine Gael finished third, with 20.9%, losing 15 of its 50 seats.

What followed was a process very emblematic of politics in the modern Irish Republic.

For reasons of long-held tradition and ideology, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael refused to countenance forming a coalition with Sinn Féin. However, a faction of Fianna Fáil made it clear that they were open to discussing it.

The only other option (and the one finally taken) was a grand coalition comprising Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Greens. Varadkar was allowed to retain his position on the premise that the position of Taoiseach would rotate over time.

With elections required by March 2025, it is unclear what caused Leo Varadkar to step down, although it’s not hard to surmise why. Varadkar said that he believed that his government could be re-elected but that he wasn’t the best person to make that happen.

The backdrop is the failure of a two-part referendum to strike sexist Catholic gender politics, held over from the 1930s.

Offending passages include mothers’ “duties in the home” and another designating the family “a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law”.

Proposed changes would have removed the implication that work in the home was the province of women and eliminated marriage as the primary basis of family life.

Both referendums were resoundingly rejected.

Reasons for their failure include opposition from conservatives, leftist voters who felt the proposed changes weren’t radical enough, and government mismanagement of the campaign.

Whatever the case may be, Varadkar’s coalition is being held responsible for failing to bring the Irish constitution more in line with EU norms, which, prior to the vote, had widespread support.

In such a context, it isn’t hard to imagine why Leo Varadkar called it a day.

The next round of legislative elections looks to be no less fraught than the last.

Grand coalitions tend to be difficult because they get locked into technocratic triangulations, focused more on avoiding friction than governing successfully.

This is probably less the case in Ireland, where the political distinctions between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are insignificant.

The impetus for change is more about creating the impression of political accountability in the lead-up to an election in which Sinn Féin could get an even larger proportion of the votes.

Even if Sinn Féin does not attract more followers, it is difficult to see what the coalition could accomplish that could convince voters to stay the course.

While a further shift towards Sinn Féin is possible, there might also be a migration toward more marginal parties, like the Greens or the socially conservative Aontú.

What does seem clear is that Irish politics have fragmented to a degree never seen before.

Sinn Féin has the momentum because it was not part of Varadkar’s governing coalition, which was responsible for botching the referendums.

Leading on bread-and-butter issues against a neoliberal coalition is a no-brainer strategy that plays to Sinn Féin’s strengths.

Varadkar’s resignation opened the door, and Sinn Féin could walk right through it.

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Photograph courtesy of Sinn Féin. Published under a Creative Commons license.