Ireland’s traditionally centre-right conservative political system has been rocked by a wave of support for Sinn Féin in the February 8 general election. The previously small left-wing republican party with historic links to the paramilitary Provisional Irish Republican Army, now has legitimate ambitions to form part of the next Irish government in coalition with other parties.
Political hostility, historical antipathy and considerable incompatibility on both policies and principles sullies the relationships between Sinn Féin and Ireland’s two other largest parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. While they are reluctant to share power with Sinn Féin, the current political arithmetic of the new parliament suggests the next Irish government will require its participation.
So what does this mean for Ireland’s relationship with the EU, and its upcoming post-Brexit trade negotiations with the UK?
Decidedly to the left of the political spectrum, Sinn Féin’s position on the EU has shifted over time. In its early days, the party was ardently anti-EU. For reasons of both national sovereignty and anti-capitalism, Sinn Féin stridently opposed Irish membership of the EU in 1973.
In the intervening years, the benefits of EU membership for Ireland were not lost on Sinn Féin. Membership of the single European market, access to the Common Agricultural Policy, structural fund assistance, and EU support for the Northern Ireland peace process led to some moderation of the party’s original objections to the EU. Ongoing opposition to closer and deeper EU integration was nonetheless evident. The party campaigned against various EU treaty reforms, including Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon.
Sinn Féin’s decision to support and campaign for Remain during the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership might appear out of sync with its soft euroscepticism, however, this position was largely motivated by homegrown political and constitutional concerns. Sinn Féin was concerned that a UK exit from the EU could undermine north-south relations on the island of Ireland – a particularly important outcome of the peace process for Irish nationalists. There were also concerns that a UK decision to leave the EU would re-policitise the Irish border and destabilise politics and community relations in Northern Ireland.
Motivated by Northern Ireland’s 56% vote in favour of Remain, the party argued vociferously against any Brexit deal which threatened to re-impose a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Sinn Féin position was supported by a strongly supportive EU and its chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, consistently maintained that: “Ireland’s interest is the EU’s interest”.
In the Republic of Ireland, a striking level of cross-party consensus has defined Ireland’s approach to Brexit. All Irish political parties, including Sinn Féin, supported the approach to Brexit taken by Fine Gael-led governments. Testament to this is the fact that Brexit simply did not feature as an issue during the election campaign. An election exit poll suggested that just 1% of Irish voters were concerned about Brexit.
The Brexit withdrawal agreement meets Sinn Féin’s central Brexit objective to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland, albeit using a complex formula where Northern Ireland is effectively part of the EU for the purposes of customs and free movement of goods.
Demands around Irish unity
From an Irish perspective, there are two dimensions to the next stage of the process: first, to ensure that the withdrawal agreement’s provisions on Northern Ireland are implemented, and second, to negotiate a future UK-EU relationship that does the least damage. A Sinn Féin coalition government will maintain an emphasis on protecting Irish interests, but there may be some subtle shifts in priorities, focus and relationships.
Sinn Féin’s core political aim is to achieve Irish unity. Although the issue of unification was not part of the national conversation during the general election campaign, the party’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, highlighted her intention to pursue such an agenda on the back of the party’s extraordinary election performance.
She is seeking European support and explicitly suggested in a BBC interview that: “The EU needs to take a stand in respect of Ireland in the same way that it supported the reunification of Germany.” This position has the potential to complicate and frustrate Ireland’s EU partners who will not welcome being dragged into what are domestic political and constitutional matters for Ireland and the UK.
Sinn Féin’s position will also antagonise the British government and may taint the UK-EU negotiating atmosphere. Any further hardening of the intention of the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, to diverge from EU rules would complicate the implementation of the new arrangements for Northern Ireland and its border with the Republic of Ireland.
But the extent of Sinn Féin’s influence in any future Irish government should not be overstated. The party is unlikely to be the largest partner in any coalition so its rhetoric and positions on a whole raft of policies will necessarily have to moderate. It’s also doubtful that Sinn Féin would hold all (if any) of the key Brexit-related ministries such as foreign affairs, finance or European affairs.
The backbone of Ireland’s Brexit effort – the Irish civil service – will continue to direct and manage Ireland’s approach to the EU. And a strongly pro-EU Irish public will not want to see the Ireland-EU relationship jeopardised.
The 2020 general election in Ireland has interrupted the country’s political equilibrium. New political forces, agendas and voices are now set to be part of the next Irish government. This will require some adjustment and perhaps a degree of reorientation, but political, institutional and other factors will ensure that key features and characteristics of the Ireland-EU relationship endure.