Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Sinn Fein has made themselves over


For more than a century, Ireland has been divided. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. South of that is the Republic of Ireland, an independent country with Dublin as its capital. Now one political party is poised to win power on both sides of the border, and it's promising to make that border disappear. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Dublin.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: So we're crossing the street here. And what is this neighborhood?

AISLING HEDDERMAN: We're in Canal Street. There used to be a great nightlife.

FRAYER: Housing activist Aisling Hedderman shows me around central Dublin, where most Irish people can no longer afford to live.

HEDDERMAN: An awful lot of people can't buy a home. They can't afford the rent. There's massive overcrowding.

Sponsor Message

FRAYER: Years of low corporate tax attracted tech giants from Silicon Valley. Brexit brought Europeans who might have once gone to London. It feels like every barista in Dublin is Spanish or Polish, but their accommodation, Hedderman says...

HEDDERMAN: It's, like, eight to a room, and they're all paying massive rents - like, 500 to share a bed.

FRAYER: The political party leading in the polls - in part on a promise to fix this if it wins elections expected later this year or early next - is a left-wing party with a controversial past.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The bomb blast at Omagh has killed at least 26 people. A dissident republican group calling itself the Real IRA...

FRAYER: The party is called Sinn Fein. It used to be the Irish Republican Army's political wing. The IRA's military wing was behind more than a thousand killings during the decades of Catholic-Protestant fighting in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles, which ended in a peace agreement in 1998. Before that, though, Sinn Fein was banned from local airwaves, literally. Its leaders' voices were deemed so dangerous...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: No party to this election is a pacifistic party.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: All business was obviously negotiations.

FRAYER: ...That the BBC used actors to voice their words.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Which the IRA have said they welcome.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: And the British government have to recognize that they can no longer deal with us in a back room.

FRAYER: Now, many younger people have no memory of that.

AMY MORGAN: The Troubles - not so much, I think.

FRAYER: Amy Morgan (ph) and Carla Cooley (ph), law students at Trinity College Dublin, were born after the peace deal and grew up after the IRA disarmed in 2005.

CARLA COOLEY: A lot of my parents' generation would be, like, really, really anti-Sinn Fein because their association with Sinn Fein is just, like, basically just The Troubles, whereas I know a lot of people my age lean towards Sinn Fein because of, like, LGBTQ issues and, like, social issues, social justice issues and things.

FRAYER: For them, Sinn Fein is a left-wing alternative to the two centrist parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, who've dominated Irish politics since just after independence from Britain in 1921. And by the way, those voices of Sinn Fein leaders - they're female now.


MARY LOU MCDONALD: This is a time of generational change right across Ireland.

FRAYER: That's Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald speaking to reporters late last year. Her fiery language is less about freedom and more about bread-and-butter issues like building more housing, lowering utility bills and making corporations pay more tax.

UNA MULLALLY: They have changed, but also, Ireland has changed.

FRAYER: Una Mullally is an Irish Times columnist. We met for a pint in a bustling pub, and she told me Sinn Fein is no longer a one-issue party.

MULLALLY: Their voter base is now cutting across half to the majority of young people in general - center-left voters, nationalist voters, center-right voters, social democratic voters. They've become quite a broad church for people, primarily, really, because of the housing crisis.

FRAYER: Now, those are voters in the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., Sinn Fein is already part of a power-sharing government. And when its leader there, Michelle O'Neill, took office earlier this year as first minister - the equivalent of a U.S. governor - she addressed the elephant in the room with an apology.


MICHELLE O'NEILL: I am sorry for all the lives lost during the conflict without exception. As first minister, I am wholeheartedly committed to continuing the work of reconciliation between all of our people.

FRAYER: She also clarified that Sinn Fein's longtime goal of uniting the two parts of Ireland into one country - it hasn't disappeared. In fact, she told local TV a referendum on that will happen this decade.


O'NEILL: Yes. I believe we're in a decade of opportunity. And there are so many things that are changing - all the old norms, the nature of the state, the fact that a nationalist republican was never supposed to be first minister. This all speaks to that change. And I think...

FRAYER: In their wildest dreams, Sinn Fein leaders themselves may not have expected to get here so quickly. But then Brexit happened, leaving part of Ireland in the EU and part of it out, which Mary Lou McDonald, O'Neill's boss in Dublin, told NPR in 2018 just doesn't make sense.

MCDONALD: Ireland is a small island, so the very idea of part of it inside the European Union and part of it outside the European Union is just crazy. I mean, it's crazy anyhow that the island is partitioned with two sets of everything - health systems, education systems, currencies and so on.

FRAYER: For decades, Sinn Fein cast Irish reunification as a stirring, romantic, nationalist ideal. Now they also say it'd just be way easier. But getting there could be tricky, says Mulally, the Dublin columnist. First, there would have to be referenda on both sides of the border. So the U.K. would have to allow it in Northern Ireland. And it's not a slam-dunk that it would pass, especially in the south, where taxpayers worry about taking on the poorer north. This would take serious planning, Mulally says, and sensitive discussions about national identity.

MULLALLY: You're talking about, like, a total reconfiguration of the centers of power on a sizeable population of people who are British - you know, who identify as British. The main thing should be the preservation of peace. This should not be an exercise of territorialism or jubilant, romantic victories.

FRAYER: Because the suffering of the past is still raw here, she says. And that's evident in a giant street mural on the side of a two-story stretch of brick row houses in Dublin.

What are we looking at here?

ADAM DOYLE: This is a mural of the eviction piece. We work on scenes from the famine in Ireland.

FRAYER: Artist Adam Doyle, better known as Spicebag, reproduced one of Ireland's most famous paintings - a scene of housing evictions during the 19th-century potato famine. But instead of British landlords evicting Irish peasants, in this version, it's the modern-day Irish police doing it.

DOYLE: Obviously, Ireland's in the midst of a horrendous housing crisis. The amount of eviction notices served in 2023 was actually higher, surpassed the level of the famine. It's just a deep wound for people. You're taught in school about, like, the famine and, like, British landlordism and how Irish people had to struggle sort of for basic rights. And then it was a period of like, you know, transitioning from being second-class citizens in our own country to having our own independent country.

FRAYER: Those themes have long been part of Sinn Fein's messaging, and Doyle says he'll vote for them, mostly as an alternative to the status quo, to send a message to the establishment. But the party's ability to actually fix things remains untested, he says.

DOYLE: They talk the talk. You kind of won't know what color their money is until they're in power because you can - from opposition, it's easy to say, we'll fix this. We'll fix that. We'll fix everything. Will they actually do it?

FRAYER: Sinn Fein, if it wins upcoming elections in the Republic of Ireland, will have a lot on its plate - a historic housing crisis, a fledgling far-right movement which led to riots late last year and this looming question of reunification, really, this party's founding principle - whether to do it, how to do it and whether there's political appetite for it across this island. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Dublin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.