The winds of change are sweeping Ireland as Brexit, COVID-19, and financial crises have introduced new zigs and zags into the political debate. Ireland, which is renowned for its revolutionary struggle and spirit, has been subjected to the rule of centrists and conservatives for the entirety of its history as a republic. However, as their policies of fiscal austerity, social conservatism, and corporate tax leniency have led to a dead-end, the Irish people have eagerly turned to progressive parties for a different solution.
The progressive Sinn Féin party has emerged as one of the leading parties in the Oireachtas, the Irish Parliament, and in the six counties in the North of Ireland. The party, whose name means “Ourselves” in Irish, was founded over 100 years ago as the anti-colonial struggle across the island was gaining strength. In the 1918 general elections in the United Kingdom with a promise to establish an Irish Republic, Sinn Féin won 73 of Ireland’s 105 allotted seats. In the ensuing war for independence, the party played a central role in the political sphere and on the battlefields to defeat the most powerful empire of the time. However, the vision and compromise of conservative sectors within Ireland prevailed and left it partially liberated while leftist forces were fractured.
A century later, Sinn Féin has once again risen to prominence. Following the 2020 elections, it is tied with Fianna Fáil, part of the ruling coalition, for the highest share of seats at 36 in the Dáil Éireann. In the now dissolved power sharing assembly in the North of Ireland, the party is tied with the Democratic Unionist Party for the largest share at 26 seats. In the elections for this body to be held on May 5, Sinn Féin is predicted to win a majority of seats.
Chris Hazzard, an MP in Westminster for the South Down constituency, is one of the faces of this new wave of Sinn Féin leadership that has galvanized and energized people across the island. He told Peoples Dispatch, “I think people have been sick of the establishment and they’ve looked for change, there’s no doubt about it. In Sinn Féin and in Mary Lou McDonald [the current president of SF], they see the people that they want to take them forward.”
The global crash and austerity
According to Hazzard a key factor in the country’s rejection of conservative politicians and parties is the suffering people endured during the global financial crash. Beginning in the 1990s, Ireland experienced rapid economic growth known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years largely attributed to the country’s incorporation into the European Union two decades earlier which opened it up to new markets, investment and loans, and decreased its reliance on the British economy. Conservative governments in the country had also ensured a low corporate tax rate and comparatively lower wages to neighboring countries, making it an attractive destination for foreign direct investment and for US companies to open their European offices. Ireland’s unemployment rate which sat at nearly 16% in 1991 dropped to 3.6% by 2001.
However, this boom quickly ended with the onset of the global financial crisis. In the case of Ireland, the country’s sovereign debt skyrocketed when the government decided to bail out the major banks that had lost millions when the property bubble burst. The national budget dropped to a deficit of 32% of the GDP in 2010, after previously having a surplus. The country turned to the EU and the International Monetary Fund for financial assistance, who in turn demanded strict spending cuts to the public sector and even saw the government reaching into pension funds. By 2011, Ireland’s GDP contracted by 14% and unemployment had risen to 15%.
“Austerity was imposed very hard on Ireland – in the south, via the EU and the European Central Bank and others in the troika, and In the North, it was imposed by Westminster and the Tory regime,” Hazzard explained. “The people of Ireland suffered under austerity quite heavily. And yet those who were responsible for that got off scot-free and actually they had their bailout,” he said.
The global economic crash saw people across the world searching for alternatives as it became clear that governments could bail out the banks but wouldn’t lift a finger for the people. In Ireland, while banks were able to bounce back in a couple of years thanks to government support, the recovery for the people has been slow and incomplete.
“A conversation started, which we led, that this wasn’t fair, this wasn’t equitable. These were the people that were causing economic pain and there was a different way forward,” Hazzard stated, reflecting on the emergence of Sinn Féin in the last decade, “And actually, the partition of our island was leading into this and that conservative Ireland had failed us North and South, not just financially but socially and culturally, and we had to address that.”
In the years since the global financial crash, we have seen that the economic recovery and growth up until the COVID-19 pandemic and the stabilization post the initial pandemic crash has been uneven. Social and economic inequality are at an all-time high. With the public sector permanently weakened and undermined, job creation has largely taken place in the even more unregulated private sector and available jobs are mostly unable to guarantee stability, rights, and decent conditions.
In Ireland for example, many jobs have been created in data centers but for Hazzard they are “unproductive centers that create no real jobs and no real wages for people or opportunities.”
At the same time, those who received their government bailouts both in 2008 and now, amid the pandemic recession, have continued to consolidate their wealth.
For Hazzard and his party, the need of the hour is “a real concerted attempt to get that money [of billionaires] transferred back into the public purse through taxation on.” They have called for “a real democratizing of the economy to give local communities a chance, not just to have a good job, but actually be part of the decision-making process and even talk about the ownership.”
Brexit and a united Ireland
Another significant development which has shaken up the political status quo across the island is Brexit. The decision of whether or not the United Kingdom should leave the European Union was put up for a referendum in 2016 by then Prime Minister David Cameron following growing pressure in the Conservative Party to take a tough stand on migration and refugees, which far-right groups claimed was a consequence of EU membership. The extremely polarized vote saw the “Leave” camp dominated by xenophobic and conservative groups like the UK Independence Party, whilst most liberal sections advocated for “remain”, largely citing important economic benefits from EU membership and pushing back against growing xenophobia.
While the “leave” vote was victorious in the referendum, the votes in the North of Ireland were overwhelmingly in favor of “remain”. Many believed that the exit of the UK from the EU zone, and thus of the North of Ireland, would fortify the division between the North and South which would have severe consequences on the economy of the North as well as on mobility between the two areas with the imposition of a hard border. Hazzard pointed out that the exit has also undermined and destabilized the tenuous peace process in the North.
This however, started a conversation, Hazzard explained. Immediately following the referendum, a top Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness called for a referendum on the unification of Ireland. While the party maintains a critical stance towards the EU and its instruments, the MP explained “It’s about national self-determination. It’s about saying, you know, you have to listen to the people. There’s no mandate for Brexit. There’s no mandate for Tory policies in Ireland, never mind Brexit.”
He added that the impact of Brexit is palpable, “the export economy has fallen off a cliff, incidents of racism have gone through the roof. It’s not a nice place and people are increasingly saying ‘You know what? We want to progress to the future. We want to be able to have opportunities both economically and socially for our family and for those people who increasingly come down from other parts of the world.’ Brexit is a chapter we want to close quickly and move to something else.”
The Brexit debate has “injected life…it’s been a catalyst in the discussion around Irish Unity, provided platforms around the world for us to be able to speak about it once again and poll after poll now suggests that, you know, it’s becoming increasingly popular with people.”
A century ago in 1918, “the people of Ireland voted for independence, and overwhelmingly, more than 75% of the people voted for Sinn Féin and fought for national independence and the creation of an Irish Republic,” Hazzard recalled. Today, as all polls point to Sinn Féin as the leading contender in the North and South, the deferred aspiration for full independence is once again on the table: “all we ask of the British government is to listen to the people of Ireland. We want to have a say in the referendum and that’s going to be about the reunification of our country.”