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Immigration is tearing Sinn Féin apart

Ordinary nationalist voters are a million miles away from the party’s liberal-elite leadership.

Ian O'Doherty

Topics Politics World

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Unlike the UK and the US, Ireland won’t have an election this year. That particular joy isn’t due until 2025. And for the first time since 2020, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald will probably be happy to have some breathing space.

It was widely assumed that, in the next General Election, Sinn Féin would comfortably wrest power from a seemingly sclerotic Fianna Fáil / Fine Gael coalition, having led nearly every poll for the past three years. Yet the ‘Shinners’ now find themselves polling below 30 points for the first time since July 2021.

The reasons for Sinn Féin’s initial polling successes were clear and obvious. Ireland is suffering through a dire housing crisis, the likes of which has never been witnessed before. McDonald has promised to place social housing at the top of her agenda and to build more fresh, affordable housing than any government in the history of the Irish state.

That was proving to be electoral catnip for a predominantly young electorate, who have long since given up hope of owning their own homes. Sinn Féin’s promises were widely mocked and dismissed by many observers as economically and practically unviable, but they still caught traction with younger voters for whom the housing crisis is the single largest political issue of our time.

So how and why has Sinn Féin fallen so far in the polls? And why are so many previously committed supporters beginning to turn their backs on the party?

There’s one answer: immigration.

Immigration has long been seen as the third rail of Irish politics. It has been virtually impossible to have a rational discussion about it without the political classes or their friends in the media immediately denouncing you as a racist.

Matters became even more heated than usual in November, when an Algerian-born man stabbed several school children and a teaching assistant outside a school in Dublin. That attack led to a night of chaos in the city, with trams set ablaze, Garda cars and police officers attacked and numerous stores looted.

In truth, this was more a case of spontaneous criminality and thuggery than a specific act of anti-immigrant hatred. Regardless, this ferocious and unprecedented violence acted as an unwelcome wake-up call for both the authorities and Sinn Féin itself. Sinn Féin’s leadership has now realised, to its horror, that the party contains more anti-immigration members than any other major party in Ireland.

Incredibly, 70 per cent of Sinn Féin members feel that Ireland is accepting too many immigrants. And their fears are not entirely unfounded. For the first time ever, 20 per cent of Ireland’s five million population were born outside the country. One-hundred-thousand Ukrainians have arrived in Ireland since the war began, the highest per-capita level of intake in the entire EU. Many Sinn Féin members blame these newcomers for rising crime, a lack of housing and causing the nation to lose its character.

That last point, minor though it may seem, is crucial to the dilemma that McDonald faces. Essentially, there are two Sinn Féins operating under the same flag. In the urban areas, the party has attracted a large following of post-Good Friday babies who are socially liberal and are attracted by the promise of more housing developments and generous welfare benefits.

Meanwhile, in the more rural areas, the longer-standing Sinn Féin supporters tend to be more interested in securing a united Ireland – the party’s main goal – and are more Catholic and socially conservative. Many of them revolted over the party’s strong defence of repealing the Eighth Amendment and legalising abortion in 2018.

To these widely disparate groups of voters, the party seems to represent two entirely different attitudes and behaviours. This schism is reflected within the party itself.

Members have been warned not to post anything online that contradicts McDonald’s messaging, but this has simply led to many of the more conservative members deciding to leave the party. Respected TD Peadar Tóibín was the first high-profile defector. He left the party in 2018 to form his own, Aontú, because of Sinn Féin’s official position on the abortion question.

As immigration has become a bigger issue, several more long-standing members have followed in Tóibín’s path. A group known as the Rural Independents is comprised of many high-profile former Shinners, such as Carol Nolan. And there is now a new party called Independent Ireland, made up of disgruntled former party members who offer what they call ‘a comfortable alternative to Sinn Féin’.

These revolts, minor in isolation but huge in their totality, have struck fear into the heart of Sinn Féin’s leadership. They even appear to have forced McDonald to change her tune on immigration.

With only 38 per cent of party members agreeing that ‘immigration is a positive benefit to Ireland’, McDonald has since softened her cough. In a series of interviews in December, she said she understood people’s concerns and wanted more conversation around immigration.

This is where McDonald is going to have to try to square the circle. It makes perfect sense to assign the housing crisis the central point of your campaign manifesto – and, in fairness, Sinn Féin has done that very well. But that argument starts to fall down when confronted with the issue of mass immigration and the inevitable added burden that this places on already overwhelmed housing lists with years-long waiting times.

The anger about such an apparently untrammelled influx of foreign-born nationals has led to many unsavoury incidents, such as the torching of rumoured immigrant-accommodation centres in Dublin and Galway. But the haughty response of the political elites, such as justice minister Helen McEntee, has been to repeatedly dismiss all of those concerned about immigration as simply being members of the far right. Unsurprisingly, this has further infuriated many residents of rural areas who have seen their local hotels and community centres shut down to make space for refugees.

Despite what the political class claims, the far right actually has vanishingly little presence in Ireland. Ireland may have once been a conservative country, but it was never particularly racist. The few far-right groupings that do exist are widely looked upon with scorn and none of them has ever made any sort of electoral impact.

Sinn Féin, which is virtually unique in the EU for being an avowedly left-wing nationalist party, now faces open revolt within its own ranks. It once attracted record popularity due to its ability to exploit the resentment of ordinary, particularly younger, people about issues such as housing and the economy. How ironic it is, then, that resentment about the one issue it has desperately tried to avoid, the vexed topic of immigration, could become the issue that scuppers its chances at the next election.

Like most countries in the West, Ireland is currently standing at a crossroads. Which direction McDonald decides to take will determine whether she becomes the next Taoiseach or just another failed opposition leader. Either way, the Irish people and their concerns deserve to be taken seriously.

Ian O’Doherty is a columnist for the Irish Independent.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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