Why young people want a change in Irish politics

Looking back over 2020, Criodán talks about the rise of Sinn Féin around the general election

Written by Criodán Ó Murchú


On the 20th September, the Sunday Times released their newest Behaviour and Attitudes Poll. In it, one of the most striking statistics was that Sinn Féin were polling at 50% in the 18-34 years category. I think this is an acknowledgement of younger people’s lack of faith in the current government and more.

General Election 2020

In the lead up to the 2020 General Election, Sinn Féin was unsure of its standing. It put forth 42 candidates for the election, half that of the parties of the last confidence-and-supply government: Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. They went on to take 37 of those 42 contested seats, an enormous victory.
Speaking to party members afterwards as to why they didn’t put more candidates forward, they reasoned that they could not have predicted such a meteoric rise on the ballots. They were as surprised as those around them with the result. Having learned their lesson, you can be sure they will try to run many more candidates in the next election.

Forming a coalition

A coalition government was drafted between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. This disappointed many as they welcomed the change that Sinn Féin offered. Sinn Féin were not invited to formation talks with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. Micheál Martin had previously stated that Fianna Fáil was the only party that could lead an alternative government. He changed tack after the results but never formally invited Mary Lou McDonald (President of Sinn Féin) to formation discussions.

Party politics is never particularly friendly; however, I believe it’s frankly rude to not even have the conversation. It’s more than rude not to invite the most popular party among ages 18-34. It shows their complete lack of respect for Sinn Féin and to a greater extent young people. To me, it shows that Fianna Fáil and the right are desperate not to lose their hold on Irish government and are legitimately concerned that Sinn Féin have the newfound legitimacy (in their eyes) to do so.

Since the government’s formation we have seen some continuous actions involving the coalition parties which may help explain the continued rise of Sinn Féin’s popularity.

1. Fianna Fáil constantly falling in the polls

They have some of the poorest polls of a lead government party. From February to June, they fell from 23% to 14% approval. In the midst of COVID-19, Brexit and more, they have been barely present and failed to achieve a strong presence as the leading party in Ireland. One reason for this may be Micheál Martin’s poorer debate skills than Leo Varakdar or Mary Lou McDonald possess, leading to some media ridicule and retweets that only add fuel to the fire.

2. Fine Gael have kept their heads down

They have reverted to their tried-and-tested defensive politics tactics. They speak up, introduce something like it’s always been their idea (insurance cost reduction first proposed by Sinn Féin, marriage equality, microbeads ban) and avoid the media for a few days. Their jab-and-move political strategy is keeping their head above water whilst Fianna Fáil is looking for a life raft. With that said, it is surprising to me how they have avoided losing any support in the last few weeks.

3. Leaving other parties

A large number of Green Party members continue to leave their party and voice their concerns about the party’s direction. This may be due to multiple reasons but a combination of the results of the coalition formation and the constraints of the Provision for Government, described by the Northern Ireland Green Party Leader Claire Bailey as the “most fiscally conservative arrangements in a generation.” Many of these members have joined parties on the left, including Sinn Féin, Social Democrats and People Before Profit.

What young people think

Some young people that I talked to, many from SpunOut.ie’s Action Panels, were surprised by the polling of the left parties.

Illan says, “Everything there is what I would have assumed was the case, with the exception, however, of the Soc Dems…I am surprised that [they] didn’t do better.”

Gemma adds to this “While climate change is a massively important issue to young people, I think Green support has reduced because they’re simply not radical enough. They might have seemed very progressive when the party was first formed, and still seem progressive to older people like my father, but to today’s youth it just seems like they’re not going far enough. Even people within the party seem to dislike their current direction.”

Stephen makes a prediction of future governments claiming “This (poll) tells me that the future of the Irish left will feature Sinn Féin as the main progressive party, with smaller niche parties (PBP catering for radical urban youth and the young middle class represented by the Greens and Social Democrats) in a supporting role.”

We want change

I for one am pleasantly surprised by these gains. Having left the Green Party, I welcome any shake-up to the current establishment. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have had control of people’s lives in Ireland for too long. We have concerns. We have fears.

What young people fear is the climate emergency, never owning our homes, failing to afford our healthcare. The right fears losing their seats and taxes. That’s the difference and why I’m unsurprised by this continuous gain of popularity. With Sinn Féin and the left on the rise, and young people getting more engaged in politics each year, the right does have something to fear. And that’s a fear I welcome.

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