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Editor's Viewpoint

Sinn Fein surge in Irish election a wake-up call for unionism

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'The exit poll in the Irish elections have sent seismic shocks through the political system, given the historic surge in first-preference votes for Sinn Fein, which equals the two other big parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael' (Rui Vieira/PA)

'The exit poll in the Irish elections have sent seismic shocks through the political system, given the historic surge in first-preference votes for Sinn Fein, which equals the two other big parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael' (Rui Vieira/PA)

'The exit poll in the Irish elections have sent seismic shocks through the political system, given the historic surge in first-preference votes for Sinn Fein, which equals the two other big parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael' (Rui Vieira/PA)

The exit poll in the Irish elections have sent seismic shocks through the political system, given the historic surge in first-preference votes for Sinn Fein, which equals the two other big parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

This surge may have been caused partly by the voters' tiredness with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, which are seen as strongly Establishment, particularly among younger voters. It shows that, overall, there is a growing desire for something different.

This is also about the major social issues in the Republic, including the housing crisis and homelessness, and these are core issues which the main parties have not been able to deal with properly. Sinn Fein is seen as progressive, though their political opponents claim that their policy for government is unrealistic.

It is also clear that the long-running issue about victims of violence, and specifically the grisly death of Paul Quinn and the Provisional IRA, which made big headlines north and south, did not deter the many thousands who voted for Sinn Fein.

Sadly many of the younger generation seem not to know, or care, about the extent of the Troubles, or the baggage which Sinn Fein carries, particularly in Northern Ireland.

This factor, however, is important to those north and south who lived through the Troubles, and it remains to be seen if the other big parties in the Republic will break their pre-election promises not to seek a coalition with Sinn Fein.

The Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has been a strong critic of Sinn Fein, which makes his current refusal to rule out a coalition with them particularly shocking.

On the other hand, this is an opportunity for Sinn Fein to play a significant role in the democratic process, putting paid to the ironic suggestions from their opponents that they are not fit for government in the Republic, yet criticising them until recently for not returning to power-sharing at Stormont.

These are challenging times for unionism, and while fears for the imminent disappearance of the Union itself are overcooked, Sinn Fein are in a strong position. The onus is now very much on the unionists to cultivate their friends and consolidate their alliances north and south, which they should have done far more up to now.

The DUP and UUP need to show hard, pragmatic skill and leadership to consolidate more support for the Union. Whether or not they can do so remains to be seen.

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