It is hard to remember an election that so unexpectedly upturned the entrenched and solid features of the Irish political landscape, and opened new alignments never before in the realm of the possible. As such, it contains echoes of the 2017 UK election when Jeremy Corbyn achieved the impossible in upending Tory expectations and achieving superstar status, though this wasn’t to last.
Asking if the election is Ireland’s Jeremy Corbyn moment is not to anticipate any similarity of outcomes but rather to compare the possibilities that emerge when younger voters awaken again to political awareness and begin to exercise some power. This is what happened with Corbyn’s surprise election as Labour leader, gave the UK Labour Party the largest membership of any party in Europe, and continues to reshape British politics despite the malign and divisive effects of Brexit. There is a longer-term set of processes being worked out that can be hidden by the events of the moment.
These are the similarities that are striking when reflecting on the election campaign just finishing. Simply put, the impossible happened: for the first time in the history of the Irish state, a party other than Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael became the most popular in a reputable opinion poll on the very eve of voting. Yes, Labour did it for a moment back in the dark days of the recession before the 2011 election but not during the campaign itself. And that happened at a moment when Fianna Fáil was in freefall, very different to today as Fianna Fáil is very much in recovery.
It is the similarities to the Corbyn moment that lend significance to this breakthrough by Sinn Féin. For, what it marks is the politicisation of a younger generation into alignments that finally break the stranglehold of the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael duopoly. Just as with Corbyn, the unthinkable becomes thinkable, and even possible. The surface alignments and aspirations may look very different in the Irish and UK cases, but the deeper realities look very similar.
For what is unthinkable in both cases is a final rejection of neoliberalism, the reign of the market and of hyper-individualised and consumerist values and aspirations that have seeped so much into the nooks and crannies of our public and private lives that they seem incontestable. And what has become possible in both cases is that the freedom of private market forces to dominate society in their interests is countered, and that public authority governs the market for the good of society and of the environment.
The Sinn Féin manifesto in 2020 and the UK Labour manifestos in both 2017 and in 2019 were based on such aspirations, until recently completely unthinkable within the accepted contours of public discourse and political contestation. What was striking in the Irish case is the extent to which, for the first time probably since the 1969 election when Labour proclaimed that ‘the seventies will be socialist’, the central importance of developing the capacity of the Irish state to transform society (this language was very evident in the discourse of the Green Party’s campaign) was widely voiced (though not by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael).
The campaign’s final moments reinforced the movement towards this position. The Labour leader Brendan Howlin’s call for ‘a left-of-centre progressive alliance’ to form before entering into any talks on a coalition deal with other parties has the effect of clarifying the difference between a state-led and a market-led model. And Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin’s call for transfers to ‘progressive’ parties has a similar effect.
The more ideological will quibble with just how radical or adequate this is. But this is to misunderstand what drives political alignments: for very few do their alignments derive clearly from nicely defined ideological templates; for the many their longer-term alignments derive from deeply felt aspirations and identifications. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn became for a moment the lightening rod to channel such aspirations and give them greater substance; in a similar way, it may be that Sinn Féin, and particularly Mary Lou McDonald, is triggering a similar effect here.
Whatever happens over this weekend, a momentous change has already taken place in Irish politics. Its imaginary map, dominated by two large parties virtually indistinguishable from one another and nurturing a model primarily attentive to the interests of global capital, has been torn up. We may or may not get a glimpse of a new map over the coming days. But there is little doubt that the pathways of Irish politics over the coming years will be opening the contours of this new map. A neoliberal, market-led Ireland, for long taken for granted and only challenged from the very edges of politics, is now being seriously contested. And it is a contest driven by younger voters.