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Sinn Féin was the shock absorber of Irish politics. It’s worn out

Don’t be fooled by the Coalition parties’ success – the right is rising

What’s happened now is that Irish politics has lost its shock absorber. At one level, the local and European elections tell us that things do not fall apart and the centre can hold. But beneath this apparent stability, there is a new vulnerability.

We have to start with what might seem an odd proposition: the shock absorber was Sinn Féin. Ever since the party became a serious electoral force in the Republic, it has acted as a buffer between the democratic political system and reactionary radicalism. The election results tell us that it can’t do that any more.

What does a shock absorber do? It takes a disruptive kinetic energy and converts into another kind of energy, which it then dissipates. When the vehicle is driving over a bumpy road, the absorber keeps its wheels in contact with the ground.

This is not the job Sinn Féin ever imagined for itself. It is rooted in anti-democratic militarism and sees itself as a revolutionary party. It is only the peculiarities of Irish history that made it possible for such a movement to be, in effect, a stabiliser.

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Those peculiarities created the doubleness of the modern Sinn Féin. On the one hand, it drew on the same kind of ethnonationalist identity politics that now fuel the far right across Europe, the United States and elsewhere. Yet on the other, it thought of itself as a progressive socialist party, committed to equality and inclusion.

As it happened, this doubleness created a kind of ambivalence that was very useful in a society experiencing a very rapid transition from monoculture to multiculture. If you were an ethnonationalist, you could identify with Sinn Féin while wrapping yourself in the tricolour and chanting Ireland for the Irish.

Yet to Sinn Féin’s great credit, it absorbed this energy while directing it away from the immigrant population. It could have tried to exploit resentment of incomers, but it chose not to do so.

And for about a quarter of a century, this accidental mechanism was extremely effective. The main reason Ireland did not have a significant far-right party was not because we are a peculiarly lovely people. It was (mostly) because Sinn Féin was occupying the space where a far-right party would be.

The effectiveness of this political device made the ride feel so smooth that it was easy not to notice how bumpy the ground really was. A combination of genuinely large inward migration, very rapid population growth, a two-tier economy and terrible planning for housing and other infrastructure was always going to generate political shock waves.

But it was too easy to forget that the State has a long history of far-right movements, that prejudice and bigotry have deep roots in sectarian fanaticism and violent tribalism, and that about a third of the electorate is deeply unhappy about the sudden implosion of Catholic Ireland. It was too easy to ignore the fact that Peter Casey got a quarter of the vote in the 2018 presidential election essentially by making himself the anti-Traveller candidate.

That vote has always been there – there’s as much of a market for the zero-sum politics of scapegoating and tribal resentment in Ireland as there is in Britain, the US or continental Europe. The purveyors of that product just had to find a way to get it on to the shelves that Sinn Féin was filling. And they’re now managing to do that.

It’s been pretty clear since the pandemic that a kind of parting was taking place: much of ethnonationalist vote was uncoupling itself from Sinn Féin.

It is still a fragmented and fractious movement. But even if it does not yet quite know what it is, it knows what it is not. It’s not Sinn Féin. It sensed what much of the political mainstream had not: that Sinn Féin was absorbing and redirecting the rough energies of ethnic resentment.

What we’ve now seen in the election numbers are the first effects of this uncoupling: a shrinking of Sinn Féin’s vote and the emergence of the far right as a potentially viable political force. What makes this latter phenomenon so significant is precisely that the movement is so fragmented and fractious. It is not a coherent or well-led organisation – and yet it is beginning to make a mark.

In the European elections in Dublin, anti-immigrant candidates took about 15 per cent of the vote between them. Dublin City Council will have three councillors elected on anti-immigrant platforms. The full picture across the rest of the country is unclear at the time of writing, but there are similar signs that this kind of politics is gaining footholds in at least the lower slopes of power.

This is a real breakthrough. It’s nothing like a massive shift, and it is counterbalanced by a consolidation of the centre ground. But the far right has opened up a space for itself in electoral politics, and it would be foolish to think that it cannot use this opportunity to normalise its rhetoric and widen that space.

It still lacks one of the essentials of reactionary radicalism – the single charismatic leader. Yet it has given itself the elbow room in which one might emerge.

That possibility still lies in the future. The immediate significance of the elections is the loss of the buffer zone that Sinn Féin had created. Can that zone be reoccupied? Probably not.

If Sinn Féin tried to snatch the ethnonationalist vote back from the usurpers, it would lose many of its progressive voters. And a turn away from the rhetoric of pluralism and inclusivity would take it further from its primary goal of a United Ireland.

So don’t be fooled by the success of the existing political establishment, impressive though it is. The ground is rough – Ireland has to get through a terrain made jagged by the mismatch between the expansion of the population and the sclerosis of the State. It is going to be a bumpy ride and from here on in all the shocks will be felt.