Ireland is going to the polls on the 8th of February. Polls suggest a close race between the Centrist-Conservative Fine Gael, and the Liberal Fianna Fail. The two are both between 25%-30%, and either could win the election.
Fine Gael, which roughly translates into English as "Irish Tribe/Family", currently leads the Government. Fianna Fail, sometimes called the Republicans, translates as "Soldiers/Warriors of Destiny". I will be simply calling them FG and FF in the rest of this post.
FF and FG both claim to come from Sinn Fein. On December 14th, 1918, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland held general elections. The results, mostly, are not important. What matters is the results in Ireland. Of the 105 seats in Ireland (of the 707 across the UK) Sinn Fein won 73. 22 were won by Irish Unionists, 6 by the Irish Parliamentary Party, 3 by Labour Unionist candidates, and 1 by Independent Unionist, Mr Woods.
Two of the Irish Unionist MPs, as well as Mr Woods, represented a University seat in Dublin. One of the Irish Parliamentary candidates represented the city of Waterford, and one, part of Donegal. The other 70 seats in the "south" of Ireland, were all represented by Sinn Fein. In the "north" Sinn Fein won only 3 seats, with the Irish Parliamentary Party winning 4, Labour Unionists 3, and the remaining 20 seats won by Irish Unionists. All MPs from Sinn Fein refused to sit in the Commons; while all non-SF MPs would choose to sit in the Commons.
The SF MPs instead decided to form the first Dail Eireann; the Assembly of Ireland. This was a revolutionary act, as they had no legal authority to do so; however, they persisted, and history marks this as the 1st Dail, and considers the 1918 UK elections, within Ireland, as the 1st Irish election.
One interesting thing to note is that the boundary separating Northern Ireland from Ireland - that is, which counties would and would not be included in each - was, in part, decided by the results of these elections; however, it is important to note, that the elections themselves were decided, in large part, by the existing demographics.
That boundary would be set by the Government of Ireland act, 1920. This came after the Irish War of Independence, which could best be described as running skirmishes between the brutal tactics of the militarized police and roving bands of armed republicans, though some larger engagements were fought. Importantly in our context as an election blog, the local elections in 1920 in Ireland played a key role. SF managed to win a majority in each of the councils in what would become Ireland, save for Galway and Waterford, where SF only won a plurality, backed by other nationalist parties. The act called for elections to two new bodies, the House of Commons of Northern Ireland; which would, over time, evolve into what we call Stormont, and the House of Commons of Southern Ireland, which would never sit. Instead, the 1921 elections to that body would result in the 2nd Dail, which, just like the first, was made up only of SF members. Interestingly, not a single ballot was cast in the election, with every seat being won by acclimation; 124 for SF and 4 for Unionists at the University.
This is when the Anglo-Irish treaty would be signed. It is that treaty which would split Sinn Fein. The treaty would see Ireland become a Dominion, like Canada, and have a Governor General. As well, it would split the Island of Ireland, creating Northern Ireland and the Ireland we know today. The treaty would be passed by the 2nd Dail by a margin of 64 to 57. This would result in the Irish Civil War.
The Irish Civil War would be more bloody than the Irish War for Independence. During this period, elections for the 3rd Dail were held, with SF members supporting the treaty winning 58 seats, compared to 36 for those opposed. The Labour party would win 17, the Farmers party 7, and 10 others would be elected as well. In the end, the Pro-Treaty forces would win the civil war. They would name their party Cumann na nGaedheal (Society of the Gaels) while anti-treaty opponents would simply be known as Republicans, and stuck to the Sinn Fein label.
In 1926, Eamon de Valera, who had been perhaps the foremost leader in Ireland during all of this, but was a treaty opponent, tried, but failed, to convince his Sinn Fein party to agree to participate in the 1927 elections and resulting Dail. As a result, he started his own party, Fianna Fail, to context the elections.
In 1932, the Farmers Party merged into the National Centre Party. That party itself would merge with the larger Cumann na nGaedheal to form Fine Gael.
So, these two parties, FG, and FF, were literally trying to kill one another in a civil war a little under 100 years ago. It thus came as a bit of a shock when the two came to a governing agreement in 2016. FG, which had won the elections, would form the government. FF, however, agreed to abstain on certain confidence issues, allowing the FG government to take office.
The two parties have never had policies that diverge terribly with one another, both being highly centrist, and both evolving with the times and with the Irish electorate.
Going back to our historical narrative, Sinn Fein then spent a period of time in the political wilderness. By the late 1960s, the party was dominated by armed militants and marxists; and a major split occurred, spinning off many marxist members to what later became the Workers Party. In 1983, Gerry Adams became leader of SF, and in 1986, the party voted to take their seats, if elected to them, in the Dail; which itself caused another split.
SF would participate in the 1987 elections in Ireland, but failed to win any seats (it should be noted that the Workers Party won 4 seats in that election). They would also run in 1989, and 1992, before finally winning a seat in the Dail in 1997. They managed 5 seats in 2002, 14 in 2011, and 23 in the last elections in 2016.
Currently, FG has 47 seats, FF has 45, and SF has 22. As such, 114 of the 158 seats in the Dail are held by parties that trace their heritage back to the original Sinn Fein and the 1918 election. Polls put these parties on a combined 74 seats, and each of them is polling slightly higher than their 2016 result, though, not by much.
Our next post in the Ireland series will look at the parties that do not directly trace their heritage from 1918 Sinn Fein, such as Labour, the Green Party, People Before Profit, the Social Democrats, and Aontu.