What is Sinn Fein and how it is shaking up Irish politics

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Rooted in its campaign for a united Ireland, Sinn Fein has long been an outsider in politics due to its links to the Irish Republican Army. With the conflict in Northern Ireland largely over following a 1998 peace accord, the movement reinvented itself to appeal to a new generation of voters. It now has a chance to become the biggest party in the north and south of the island, making its demand for a unification referendum harder to ignore.

The party, whose name means “We Alone”, was formed amid the campaign for Irish Home Rule in the early 20th century. After the Catholic south gained independence from Britain in 1921, Sinn Fein continued to oppose the British hold on the predominantly Protestant north. He only began seriously contesting elections south of the border in the 1980s in a strategy known as “Armalite and the ballot box”. (The first is a weapons manufacturer). Today, it is a largely centre-left party campaigning for increased public spending, better housing and higher taxes on the wealthy.

2. What role did he play in the north?

During the conflict known as The Troubles, Sinn Fein was widely seen as the political wing of the republican movement which also included the Provisional IRA, although it never formally confirmed the association. The fighting was sparked by street protests in 1968 and claimed an estimated 3,500 lives until the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness helped broker the peace deal and entered government in Northern Ireland.

3. How popular is Sinn Fein today?

It has been the biggest nationalist group in the northern power-sharing assembly since 2003, and opinion polls suggest it will overtake the Democratic Unionists as the biggest party in an election on May 5. If so, Sinn Fein could choose the first party in the region. minister for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement, a seismic shift in a region historically dominated by parties loyal to Britain. South of the border in the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein has gone from fringe to mainstream after doubling its vote between 2007 and 2016. In 2020, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail – the two parties that have largely dominated Irish politics since the founding of the state – had to form a coalition to keep Sinn Fein out of power.

4. Why this increase in support?

Disputes over how to maintain trade with EU member Ireland following Britain’s departure from the European Union have made Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom United once again a major issue, playing into the party’s key message. Brexit has also caused discord within Sinn Fein’s arch-rival the DUP, which has lost voters to other unionist and centrist parties. The May 5 election could help determine the region’s final post-Brexit arrangements as the assembly is due to vote on the issue in 2024 and has the power to scrap the status quo altogether. In the south, the mutual support of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael since 2016 has seen Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald emerge as the only real agent of change. The party is particularly popular among young voters who have been hardest hit by a housing shortage and have few memories of the Troubles.

5. What are the main policies of Sinn Fein?

Sinn Fein want planning to begin for a referendum on reunification on the island. In Northern Ireland, he is also campaigning on a promise to help voters cope with the soaring cost of living. In the republic, he wants to freeze residential rents and increase public spending on new housing. It plans to abolish property taxes, close corporate tax loopholes, ensure the wealthy contribute more in tax and lower the official retirement age.

6. What does this mean for a united Ireland?

Under the terms of the Good Friday deal, only the UK government is supposed to call a unification vote if it is seen as likely to pass in the north. It would then also require a vote in the Republic. It is not clear that the growing support for Sinn Fein reflects increased enthusiasm for a united Ireland: just 32% of people backed the idea in an April poll for The Irish News, with 48% opposed. Significantly, more than half of those polled would be against unification if it meant paying higher taxes.

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