After Brexit, Sinn Fein, party formerly linked to IRA, breaks records in Irish general election

Following the Irish general election last weekend, the party Sinn Fein, which has faced backlash for its historic links to the Irish Republican Army and decades of violence in Northern Ireland, is celebrating its best-ever electoral vote. According to results released Tuesday, it virtually tied with two other parties for seats, signaling weeks of tense negotiations ahead to form a coalition government.

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The election result could help the left-wing, Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein advance its longstanding goal before the Dublin establishment of reunifying the Republic of Ireland with Northern Ireland, according to CS Monitor.

Ahead of “Brexit Day,” it was feared the United Kingdom leaving the European Union could weaken the 1998 Good Friday Agreement — the Belfast peace accord that ended decades of sectarian violence between Irish Catholics and Protestant British Loyalist in Northern Ireland, EURACTIV previously reported.

Sinn Féin’s President Mary Lou McDonald addresses the media in Dublin, as Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane looks on, in Dublin, Ireland, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020.  (Niall Carson/PA via AP)

With all votes counted Tuesday, Sinn Fein won 37 seats in the 160-seat Dail, the lower house of parliament. The center-right Fianna Fail party won 38 seats. Fine Gael, the centrist party led by incumbent Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, took 35.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said her party would try to form a government with independent lawmakers and smaller left-wing parties such as the Social Democrats and the Greens.

“I think it would be a mighty thing to have a Sinn Fein Taoiseach (prime minister) and also a woman, perhaps, in the job,” she said.

The election result was a major blow for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, which have dominated Irish politics since the country won independence from Britain a century ago. Both parties said before the election that they would not go into a coalition with Sinn Fein because of its links to past violence.

Sinn Fein MP David Cullinane faced criticism for shouting “up the Ra,” a reference to the slogan used by IRA, in a speech following the party’s breakthrough election performance.

“My comments were about the past, they were not about the future, the IRA is gone as everybody knows,” Cullinane, who is also the party’s Brexit spokesperson, told Sky News. “It was reflecting back on that time in Irish history that I’m proud of and those hunger strikers and it was I suppose part of the excitement of the night when we were celebrating that victory.”

“I’m very proud of that republican legacy,” he added.

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There is no guarantee Sinn Fein will be able to assemble a stable coalition, even with the support of smaller parties. With no party anywhere near the 80 seats needed for a majority in parliament, some form of coalition appears inevitable, but forming a stable alliance could be tough if Fianna Fail and Fine Gael don’t reconsider working with the party with past IRA ties.

Sinn Fein’s radical proposals for tackling Ireland’s housing crisis and creaking healthcare system proved a powerful draw for young voters in a country that is still dealing with aftershocks of the 2008 global financial crisis, which hammered its debt-driven “Celtic Tiger” economy.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.