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The seesaw effect of the Sinn Féin party

Mary Lou McDonald, photo by Sinn Féin

Originally the main political party in Ireland, Sinn Féin has had its ups and downs with the Irish public. It was founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith. In December 1918, Sinn Féin won a large majority of seats in the first (unofficial) Dáil Éireann.

Sinn Féin Mural, photo by Runemaker

This popularity was short-lived. By 1927, Sinn Féin had largely been broken down into 2 sides: the Anti-Treatyites (Fianna Fáil) and the Pro-Treatyites (Cuman na nGaedhal, later Fine Gael). In the general election in June, 1927, Sinn Féin only won 3.6% of Dáil seats. The third largest party throughout most of the 20th century in Ireland was the Labour Party. 

After this election in 1927, Sinn Féin did not contest another election until 1957. In 1957, the republican party at the time, Clann na Poblachta (founded in July 1946), withdrew support for the government on the basis of economic policy and a lack of support for Irish republicanism. An election was called for March 1957.

Sinn Féin decided to contest this election and they won 4 seats (5.35%). At this time, they recognised the Dáil as a construct of the United Kingdom and refused to take their seats. In the next general election in 1961, they ran again and did not win any seats. Sinn Féin rested dormant until 1987.

In 1986 there was a split on the issue of taking elected seats in Dáil Éireann. Followers of Sinn Féin leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness agreed to recognise the Dáil and became the current Sinn Féin Party we have in Ireland today.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, photo by Sinn Féin

Little by little Sinn Féin has since grown in popularity, with its most recent spike in popularity occurring in the February 2020 general election.

In 1987, Sinn Féin won 0 seats in the Dáil:

10 years later, Sinn Féin had crept up to 1 seat (2.5%) in Dáil Éireann:

In May, 2007, Sinn Féin won 4 seats (6.94%):

By 2016, Sinn Féin had 23 seats in the Dáil (13.85%):

And much to the surprise of many people in Ireland, in the 2020 general election, Sinn Féin won the popular vote (24.5%) and the most seats the party had won since 1922:

What caused such a spike in popularity?

One possible reason could be due to its new leadership. Gerry Adams stood down as leader of the party in 2018. Adams received negative publicity due to alleged crimes he committed while a member of the IRA (Irish Republican Army). Mary Lou McDonald has no direct links with the IRA and was therefore seen as a fresher start for the party.

Mary Lou McDonald, photo by Sinn Féin

In the 2019 local elections Sinn Féin kept only 81 of its 949 seats. Many journalists, including Gráinne Ní Aodha of the The, have suggested that Sinn Féin may have scrutinised such a loss and learned from their mistakes.

What is widely purported to be one of the main reasons for Sinn Féin’s sudden rise in popularity is the desperate need for change in Ireland. Mary Lou McDonald frequently represented Sinn Féin as the “alternative” party to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who she often claimed were two sides of the same coin.

On the Claire Byrne Live leader’s debate on 27 January, McDonald referred to Leo Varadkar, the leader of Fine Gael and the current Taoiseach, and Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil,  as “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee”.

Due to the near three-way draw between Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, another general election in 2020 may be likely.

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