After a long-awaited and much-anticipated decision, President Michael D. Higgins finally announced in early July that he would nominate himself as a candidate in the upcoming presidential election and seek a second term in the country’s highest office. That decision was welcomed across the breadth of the political spectrum, and his candidacy was immediately endorsed by all of the major political parties in Ireland.
Except for Sinn Fein, that is.
Ireland's oldest party characteristically went against the grain and opted instead to announce that it would field its own candidate this October, believing that "this election provides a perfect opportunity for a conversation about the next seven years" and that "it is important that citizens have an opportunity to vote for who they want to see as President." It was hardly an unexpected move, given that Sinn Fein had already indicated weeks prior to Michael D's official announcement that it would seriously consider fielding a candidate in the race.
While it is easy to disregard this decision as typical republican obstructionism, Sinn Fein’s status as the only major political party to nominate a presidential candidate is a calculated tactical maneuver designed to ensure that it occupies the center of the political stage and that it shapes the ideological confines within which the coming debates will occur, a privilege no other party will enjoy and one that will give Sinn Fein an incredible degree of leverage in the months following the election.
The party is yet to nominate a candidate, and it recently announced that that decision will not occur until mid-September, but Liadh Ni Riada MEP, Belfast solicitor John Finucane, Michelle Gildernew MP, and Dublin artist Robert Ballagh have all been mentioned as potential candidates. Moreover, party sources have indicated that it is "extremely likely" the candidate will be a woman, leaving only Ni Riada and Gildernew from the above list, neither of whom will be hampered by an IRA past that helped scuttle Martin McGuinness's own presidential campaign in 2011.
But no candidate is likely to beat Michael D, who is considered the front-runner by a wide margin. This is plainly obvious to Sinn Fein, and evidently of little consequence. Sinn Fein is seeking something far more significant and more enduring than the 7-year presidency; it seeks to overtake Fianna Fail as the second-largest party in the Dail and upend a party system that has been in place for nearly a century.
The upcoming election is not about winning the presidency, then, it's about staying in the public eye, shaping the conversation about Ireland's future, and ultimately taking another calculated step in the decades-long process that has seen Sinn Fein transform from the conservative, marginalized political wing of the Provisional IRA into the progressive, constitutional and mainstream party that it is today.
Sinn Fein's meteoric rise over the past decade has occurred largely at Fianna Fail's expense. The late-2000s economic meltdown led directly to Fianna Fail's historic decimation at the 2011 general election, and Sinn Fein, armed with its anti-austerity platform, stood waiting to retrieve some of the pieces. While Fianna Fail recovered a substantial degree of lost territory in 2016, Sinn Fein followed closely behind, leap-frogging Labour as the third-largest party in the Dail and forcing genuine conversation about a possible coalition government involving Sinn Fein.
Successive opinion polls in the two years since the general election suggest that Sinn Fein’s support continues to swell, and while some polls indicate that Sinn Fein is still on the verge of overtaking Fianna Fail, others predict that this monumental realignment has already happened. The poll numbers are especially alarming for Fianna Fail when one considers that 30% of all voters in the 18-24 age bracket now support Sinn Fein, versus only 16% who support Fianna Fail.
If a Ni Riada or a Gildernew stand as Sinn Fein's candidate, attempts to brand them as dupes in the Provisional IRA's political game will be comical at best, and unlikely to resonate with a younger generation that didn't experience the Troubles. Indeed, the upcoming presidential election will provide Sinn Fein with unmatched access to the public through the airwaves, facetime, and debate minutes. These are precious opportunities to promote its progressive agenda and advertise its revamped image that will only pay-off later—again, at Fianna Fail's expense.
For this reason, there was initial speculation that if Sinn Fein fielded a candidate, Fianna Fail could simply not afford the political cost of staying out of the race. Higgins' decision to stand put the party in an awkward position because if it chose to contest an incumbent who enjoyed widespread popularity, it risked losing the steady degree of public support it's regained since 2011. But by staying out of the race, Fianna Fail tacitly allows Sinn Fein to occupy center-stage for the remainder of the year and to shape the national political debate as the far more consequential general election looms larger.
The official date for the next general election is set for 2021, but the popular feeling is that one will occur within the next year, probably sometime in early 2019. The upcoming presidential election is therefore timed perfectly for Sinn Fein. The party will have a wealth of opportunity to deliver its message to the public with little opposition from its main opponents, and the election itself might act as an important piece of political propaganda if the Sinn Fein candidate can muster more first-preference votes this time around than McGuinness did in 2011. This is political capital that the party will no doubt harness and use to its advantage when the inevitable general election does occur, possibly providing it enough momentum to finally overtake Fianna Fail and, perhaps, form part of the next government.
Perhaps this is why Fianna Fail recently refused to accept Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's offer of a 2020 election date and is reportedly preparing for a September general election. The agreement propping up Varadkar's government is set to expire in October, and several pundits consider it likely that Fianna Fail will reject the deal's renewal and precipitate an election instead. An autumn general election would occur almost simultaneously with the presidential election, robbing Sinn Fein of the political capital it might gain from having unfettered access to the public and ensuring that the mainstream parties dilute what is likely to be an overwhelmingly progressive conversation. Moreover, if the general election does occur in September, it would preempt the presidential election by a few weeks, allowing the mainstream parties to shape the political debate before Sinn Fein has its chance.
Regardless of whether a general election occurs this autumn, it remains true that Fianna Fail is fighting an historically significant battle for its political future, while Sinn Fein is surging ahead at a rate that presently seems unstoppable. Sinn Fein already appears to have won the youth vote, and Fianna Fail's official stance against abortion in the recent referendum made the party appear out of touch with the attitudes of the general public, sentiments that will only help Sinn Fein to solidify its support across the country.
The clock is certainly ticking for Fianna Fail, and the upcoming presidential election might prove to be the first stages of another ground-shifting political shakeup that will have lasting consequences for the future of Ireland.
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