Mary Lou McDonald & Michelle O'Neill addresses the media at Stormont | Photo: Sinn Féin – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article Mary Lou McDonald & Michelle O'Neill addresses the media at Stormont | Photo: Sinn Féin – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article

Chris Bambery assesses the contradictory nature of the rise in support for Sinn Féin

There seems to be a deep and sustained desire for change in the Republic of Ireland. The latest polls show that Sinn Féin is racing ahead of every other party in the Republic of Ireland. The party’s support has reached an all time high of 35%, way ahead of the two traditional parties of government, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, both on just 20%.

Two months ago, Sinn Fein’s President, Mary Lou McDonald, told its annual conference, ard fheis, that the country had “gone to the dogs” under the current Fianna Fail-Fine Gael-Green Party coalition government. Adding that, “We are the party of change.”

In contrast, the coalition government is taking flak for the plight working-class and, increasingly, middle-class people find themselves in. It is an unlikely combination; Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were traditionally at daggers drawn. Sinn Féin was the biggest party at the last general election, but the others joined to exclude them from office, because of the party’s links to the Irish Republican Army during its 1971-1977 military campaign. In 2005, the IRA would destroy its arsenal in front of international observers and disband.

On paper, things should be good. The Republic’s economy is growing fast. It was the only one in the European Union to grow in 2020 and is set to see 15% growth this year. However, the benefits of that growth have almost entirely accrued to the country’s elite, not the vast majority of the population.

Housing and Sinn Fein’s popularity

Housing is a central issue. Rents in the city of Cork are projected to rise by 36% by 2028, and in Dublin by 50% to an average rent of €2,500 a month, for a one-bedroom apartment. House prices are also set to continue to rise. Since 2013, there has been a 90% increase in house prices. They are set to rise further in Cork by up to 45% by 2028. The average Cork home priced at €307,000 now will cost €442,000 in just seven years’ time. In Dublin, house prices are projected to rise by 30%, from an average of €437,000 to €575,000 in 2028.

This means that between now and 2028, two thirds of new households in Dublin will not be able to afford to buy or rent their home. Just 18% will be able to buy a home and only 15% be able to afford to rent privately.

The latest rental and house-price reports for Fingal, to the immediate north of Dublin, home to Dublin Airport, shows that in the third quarter of 2021 the average monthly rent was €1,889. This is an 8% increase on rental costs compared to the third quarter of 2020. The average price for a house stood at €344,957: an increase of 6.3% in just twelve months.

In order to be able to buy a home the average household, within the next two years, will require a yearly salary of €90,000 plus a deposit of €35,000. The median salary is €35,000, requiring that the average household will effectively have to secure a €20,000 pay increase over the next 24 months if they want to buy a home.

For those under thirty the median salary is €28,000. The current minimum wage is €10.20 per hour. The basic wage deemed necessary for existence in Ireland is now stands at €12.90 per hour, requiring a €2.70, or 26% increase.

The extent of the housing crisis in the Republic is staggering, with excessive and unaffordable rents for those in the private-rented sector. Evictions, often illegal, are a regular occurrence, homelessness among families is at a record high, and the state has one of the highest levels in the EU of 16-29 year olds still living with their parents. Growing numbers of private renters are among older age-groups, which may well lead to difficulties when they become pensioners. Currently, half of renters over the age of 65 are spending more than 35% of their income on rent.

Meanwhile, land speculators and construction companies are recording windfall profits. Many Fianna Fail and Fine Gael TDs (MPs) are landlords themselves or are connected to the construction industry. All of this is happening against the background of the 2008 financial crash, when a property bubble burst spectacularly, leading the state to bail out the banks, but also to impose savage austerity measures on the population.

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael still pride themselves that the Republic is a low-tax haven for multinationals. They also liked the stability of two pro-business parties making up the government. But the days of a two-party system have now vanished.

Sinn Féin and Northern Ireland

The next election in the Republic is scheduled for 2025, but those for the Northern Ireland Assembly are set to take place in May. Currently Sinn Féin are on 24% of the vote, six points ahead of the Democratic Unionist Party. The latter currently heads the coalition government in which Sinn Fein are the junior partner.

The DUP are paying the price for internal factional fighting, and the mess Boris Johnson and they have made over Brexit and Northern Ireland’s relations with the Republic. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, despite the DUP campaigning hard for Leave. Subsequently, the British government promised there would be no customs border with the Republic or with Britain. However, the current deal with the EU has created a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain.

Opposition to this has fed support for Loyalist paramilitaries, leading to some riots and threats of a return to violence, and a more hardline break away from the DUP. The DUP has also alienated sections of the business population who don’t want any border with the Republic, and wish access to the EU single market.

The biggest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly appoints the First Minister. If Sinn Féin maintain the lead, Michelle O’Neill would take that position. Sinn Féin’s policy in the North is to prove itself as the natural party of government who can be trusted to run things. This is in contrast with the radical message it puts across in the Republic.

The latest poll in the Republic on support for Irish unity stands at 62%, with just 16% opposed. However, just 20% regard it as a priority while, 52% of people say a united Ireland is ‘not very important’ to them, but they ‘would like to see it someday’. When asked when a referendum should be held just 15% said they wanted so immediately.

The danger is that the issue of unity becomes detached from the very economic and social issues driving increased support for Sinn Féin in the South.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.