In a noteworthy political breakthrough, Gerry Adams has been elected to the parliament of the Irish Republic and the party he leads, Sinn Fein, has tripled its representation in a realignment of Irish politics. Adams could conceivably become the opposition leader in the elected government.
The scandal-marred collapse of the Irish economy and the humiliating submission of the Dublin political elite to European lenders are background to the rising relevence of Sinn Fein’s nationalism and republicanism. But organization and leadership have been central elements in Sinn Fein’s evolution from supporting a 30-year armed struggle in the North to the negotiated Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and from there to its emergence as the largest nationalist party in the North. Having established power-sharing institutions in the North, Sinn Fein seemed to stall in its more recent efforts to carve out an electoral presence in the southern Republic. The peace process, so vital to the North, seemed more remote to southern voters caught up in issues of the economy, church and state, women’s rights and the transition to the Facebook world.
The North and South, for many, were two different worlds. The Dublin government, and public in general, were hostile to Northern republicans for reasons going back to the Irish civil wars. Sinn Fein leaders were censored in the southern media, excluded from the political process, derided as terrorists, and perceived as a serious threat to the tranquil development of the south. Essentially, a permanent partition of the island was accepted by generations of Dublin governments. Fear of Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army was the equivalent of Cold War anti-communism.
But the movement itself never stalled or divided, as often happens in transitions from war to peace and domestic issues. In recent years, Sinn Fein won several elections in traditional republican strongholds in the south. The party became more acceptable, while still appearing anachronistic to the mainstream parties, media and voters.
Then Adams, who had transitioned to electoral politics in the north, becoming the MP for West Belfast, made a bold historic move. Months ago, he announced he was leaving his safe parliamentary seat to cross the traditional border and campaign for a Dail seat in Louth. Twenty years before, this would have been perceived an invasion by Satan. Adams never swerved from Sinn Fein’s progressive platform, began shaking hands, and the party’s volunteers went into action on the ground.
The result: with over 15,000 votes, Adams led with the highest vote total in Louth, and Sinn Fein has picked up a projected ten seats across the south in addition to the five it holds, while making gains in conservative midlands constituencies. Click here for an excellent video account of election day in Louth.
In a world of many failed peace processes and splintered progressive movements, the Irish experience is an exception worth examining. For greater analysis of the dynamics and hurdles, see Tom Hayden, "The Fate of Revolutionaries: Northern Ireland”, an excerpt from The Long Sixties [Paradigm, 2009].