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Ireland’s Electoral Earthquake

Sinn Féin's shocking success in Ireland's general election reflects several factors, from years of austerity to Brexit, which unlocked the Pandora's box of Irish reunification. If the long-shunned nationalists finds their way into government, a referendum on reunification with Northern Ireland will be only a matter of time.

LONDON – Sinn Féin’s success in Ireland’s February 8 general election, where it headed the poll, has come as a shock, owing to the party’s historic ties to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and that organization’s association with violence. The cause of its success was domestic discontent, not nationalist fervor. Nevertheless, Sinn Féin’s victory will put Irish unity – and thus the future of Northern Ireland’s inclusion in the United Kingdom – firmly on the agenda.

No one is more surprised by the result than Sinn Féin itself. Last May, the party, under its new leader, Mary Lou McDonald, captured just 9.5% of the vote in local elections, and 11.7% in the European Parliament election. These results left party leaders so discouraged that they didn’t even bother to run a full slate of candidates in this month’s general election. Yet it has suddenly surged to 24.5%, ahead of both of Ireland’s traditional mainstream parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

To be sure, Sinn Féin won only 37 seats in the 160-seat Dáil (parliament). Ireland’s complex system of proportional representation and multi-seat constituencies tends to allocate most seats according to voters’ second and lower preferences, thereby favoring parties with more candidates overall. Nonetheless, the party will now move from the margins to the center of Irish politics.

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