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Sinn Féin’s Youthquake

Last weekend's Irish election saw a youthquake for Sinn Féin, as young voters who bore the brunt of the housing crisis turned against the country's political establishment.

On Saturday, Sinn Féin took just shy of a quarter of all first preference votes in Ireland’s general election, the biggest electoral success for the party since the historic 1918 election in which they took 73 of 105 available Irish seats at Westminster.

The significance of Saturday’s vote should not be understated. Sinn Féin’s success has brought about the collapse of the century-long hold on power by Ireland’s right-wing, as represented by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and shown that there is both popular support for the first left-wing government in the history of the state, as well as Sinn Féin’s role in leading it.

The election was held against a number of different, but significantly overlapping issues. The governing Fine Gael, propped up by their Civil War opponents Fianna Fáil in an unprecedented confidence-and-supply agreement, had overseen grotesque crises in health and housing.

Despite cross-party agreement on Sláintecare – a plan to end the two-tier health system and inject significant amounts of public money into frontline healthcare services – Fine Gael were foot-dragging and non-committal in its implementation. Fine Gael, as a right-wing party, are ideologically opposed to universal healthcare free at the point of delivery. In fact, they are opposed to the provision of free services by the state in general and have often demonised working-class communities who rely upon them.

Most significantly, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael fell victim to a reversal of political apathy among young and working-class voters, and a massive swing of support to what can loosely can be described as progressive parties. To maintain their stranglehold on power, both parties have banked on young people switching off from politics altogether, and from low voter turnouts in working-class communities.

Saturday didn’t work out as they had planned. Sinn Féin benefitted hugely from what has been described as the ‘youthquake’. In 2016, support for Sinn Féin amongst 18-24-year olds was 16% – on Saturday that doubled to 31.8%. The party also took 31.7% of votes in the 25-34 year olds, often referred to as the ‘locked-out generation,’ those who have been disproportionately affected by the housing crisis.

It was this generation who bore the brunt of the last Fianna Fáil government, who operated exclusively in the interests of landlords and property developers, the failure of Fine Gael to build social and affordable homes, and out of control and completely unaffordable rents across the country.

Incredibly, Sinn Féin has emerged as the single most popular political party for all those under the age of 65. This shows that the old attack lines no longer work – and there is increasingly a backlash against the Irish political and media establishments’ attempts to demonise Sinn Féin. Instead, most voters were focused on the policies that would deliver a radical and necessary change in their circumstances.

Three issues motivated Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to call this election. Firstly, he predicted that Fine Gael would be rewarded for steering Ireland through the choppy waters of Brexit, despite that success not being their own (and despite it being of relevance to just 1% of voters in the RTE exit poll).

Secondly, owing to the scandalous health crisis which saw over 100,000 people suffer the indignity of lying on a hospital trolley in 2019 alone, the patience of the Dáil was wearing thin with Fine Gael’s inaction. There was a willingness to vote no confidence in housing minister Simon Harris – who incidentally was re-elected on the 15th count and under the quota in his Wicklow constituency.

Finally, Varadkar thought he would catch his political opponents off guard by calling a three-week election campaign. Young people took this as a challenge, as rose to it accordingly. Ógra Shinn Féin also stepped up to the plate, playing a crucial role in giving a voice to disaffected Irish youth.

We led an incredibly effective and relevant social media campaign, making use of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok to sum up our policy positions and get the message out to young voters who are increasingly aware of the vested interest of the mainstream media in propping up a failing political system.

We took inspiration from Young Labour in Britain – both in our ‘battle bus’ in County Wexford and in ‘Forógra na hÓg,’ our Youth Manifesto, which highlighted the policy issues that were of particular importance to young people. This included delivering a Green New Deal, introducing a Living Wage of €12.30 an hour, a 24/7 mental health service, free education and affordable housing.

As an all-island movement, we were able to reorganise our entire structures in the six counties, and designate them to areas of need in the twenty-six counties. Derry was paired with Donegal, Belfast with Dublin, and Newry/Armagh went into Louth. We had comrades travelling daily to and from canvasses, between shifts at work, from Belfast and Derry to Dublin, Louth and the pitch-black nights of rural Cavan.

All of this encapsulated a burning desire for radical change in Irish politics, and the central role that committed and politicised young people played in bringing that radical change about. In the last week of the election campaign, Ógra had 200 applications to join. The day after, we matched that figure. At the time of writing, Ógra are processing almost 500 applications.

Young people are flocking to Ógra Shinn Féin, and that is reflective of their desire for change as much as it is a resounding endorsement of the Sinn Féin’s left-wing policy platform. It isn’t always clear to people that politics can be a solution to the problems in their lives, but Ógra has spent years communicating this to Ireland’s – and that was evident in this election.

The next few weeks will be dominated by negotiations to establish the next Irish government. Sinn Féin’s preference is for government without both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. If the numbers are not there, we will seek to establish a republican programme for government that will deliver the biggest house building programme in the history of the state, invest billions in health and end the two-tier system, a fair deal for workers and families, and a referendum on Irish unity.

In the meantime, will continue to build Ógra Shinn Féin as a serious political force in Ireland, and as a vehicle for positive change from the glens of Antrim to Rebel Cork.