Little can shock observers of European politics these days, but on Saturday in Ireland jaws hit the floor. Sinn Féin—a group once synonymous with sectarian violence—won the popular vote in the Irish general election. It marked a seismic shift in the island nation’s political landscape, tearing apart a century of two-party rule.

What Happened In The Irish Election?

Fine Gael—the party of government led by prime minister Leo Varadkar—suffered a stinging electoral rebuke, taking little over one-fifth of the vote. Fianna Fáil—who have alternated national leadership with Fine Gael for 90 years—fared only marginally better. Sinn Féin, long ostracised by Ireland’s political mainstream, won the trust of almost a quarter of all voters.

The result marked a quantum leap for the left-leaning group, whose popularity has been growing gradually for a decade. Bit by bit, they’ve chipped away at their tainted public image, distancing themselves from the IRA terrorists with whom they were once aligned.Sinn Féin’s centrist opponents have not made it easy, invoking incessantly the party’s ugly past. But with the ebbing threat of militant republicanism—a process commenced by 198’s Good Friday peace deal—the stigma of supporting Sinn Féin has receded. 

Ireland’s Younger Generation Doesn’t Attach Stigma To Sinn Fein

Young people—those who’ve growing up in a relatively peaceful Ireland—are not hampered like their parents by the memory of sectarian murder. Instead, like millennials across Europe, their focus is on living conditions, housing costs, healthcare standards, and faltering public services. Far from dwelling on its founding cause in this election of a united Ireland Sinn Féin instead ran a campaign grounded in the here-and-now.

To youngsters still living with the consequences of Ireland’s financial crash, the party offered a radical left-wing agenda. A freeze in rocketing rental costs, new taxes on the rich and a lowering of the state pension age. Beside the establishment’s unapologetically pro-business approach, Sinn Féin promised something the centrists could not: real change. 

Varadkar’s Perspective

Varadkar might well feel hard done by. The Irish economy is, after all, one of Europe’s fastest-growing, with wages on the up and the unemployment rate low. But his financial stewardship has involved biting austerity measures—rarely popular when it comes to the polls. 

Varadkar was also wrong to consider his handling of Brexit a vote winner. Varadkar was instrumental in brokering last year’s agreement on the UK’s EU departure, shielding Irish business from the likely damage of no-deal, but Brexit fell flat on the doorstep—just 1% of those surveyed in a voter exit poll cited it as an important issue. 

In a curious way, however, it was perhaps the absence of a Brexit-scale constitutional question that allowed Sinn Féin to soar. At the UK general election late last year Jeremy Corbyn—the ardently left-wing Labour leader—was roundly beaten. The reason, most agree, was because his domestic agenda was overshadowed by Brexit shortcomings. 

Sinn Féin’s Savvy Campaign

That’s not to detract from Sinn Féin’s campaign. Recognizing their potential with young voters, the group formulated a savvy social media strategy. On Instagram, their message featured in almost half of all election interactions. On Facebook, that figure leapt to 60%, despite spending up to a third less on adverts than rivals in the weeks prior to polling day.

But still, great uncertainty lies ahead. Chastened by poor local and European election results last year, Sinn Féin fielded just 42 candidates for the 160-seat contest—an effort to minimize losses. Despite their astounding success, this limited slate means the group will struggle to form a workable government. Mary Lou McDonald, the party’s leader, will now have to look to Ireland’s smaller parties—the Greens, Labour, and a host of others—in the hope of cobbling together a left-leaning coalition. 

If MacDonald succeeds at this then she will have locked Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil from power for the first time in decades. If she fails then the status quo will endure, though for how long, only time will tell.