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At the Irish elections, a Catholic vision was hard to find

Government buildings in Dublin (Getty)

Ireland has just voted in a new Dáil, and it’s one that represents a well and truly post-Catholic Ireland. If the recent same-sex marriage and abortion referendums were in part about rejecting Ireland’s Catholic past, the general election of 2020 felt like the one in which the Church and Catholicism were mostly beside the point.

The obvious story of the election is the rise of Sinn Féin. After a very poor performance in last year’s local elections, the party, under leader Mary Lou McDonald, seized the largest share of the popular vote and elected 37 of the 42 parliamentary candidates it ran. Only the fact that the party didn’t run more candidates stopped it from taking even more seats under Ireland’s proportional representation system – the party leadership were as surprised as anyone by their own success. While Ireland’s traditional two “big parties”, the centrist Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, were close to Sinn Féin in vote share and Fianna Fáil beat them by one seat, it’s difficult to see how it will be possible to form a government without Sinn Féin.

In Irish political terms this is an earthquake: it’s the first time that neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael have won the largest share of the popular vote. And it is an astonishing endorsement of a party that has never disavowed its links to the IRA or its role in the Troubles (even if most of the current leadership are too young to have been directly involved).

Why did it happen? It would be easy to connect the rise of a more left-wing party with the liberal social changes of the past few years. Same-sex marriage, abortion … Sinn Féin? Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty International, one of the leading voices for the repeal of the pro-life Eighth Amendment, said on Twitter that Sinn Féin’s rise was another example of a modernising, changing Ireland. O’Gorman wrote that Ireland was now liberated from “old orthodoxies” and free to imagine a new, progressive future.

Certainly, Sinn Féin is now a socially liberal party. But this election wasn’t about social liberalism. It was hardly a ringing endorsement of the movement to repeal the Eighth Amendment. In fact, several prominent repeal advocates lost their seats. Katherine Zappone, the independent member of parliament (TD) and children’s minister, is out. As is Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers, who described the idea that women regret abortions as “makey-uppy”. She was thought to be the future of the party’s liberal wing, and was a protégé of leader Micheál Martin, who tried to turn the socially conservative Fianna Fáil into a party that could appeal to Dublin liberals. Martin may still lead the next government, but this particular project was a failure: Fianna Fáil only got 14 per cent of the vote in Dublin. Fine Gael’s Kate O’Connell, a leading repealer and south Dublin TD, made headlines after the referendum for gloating at pro-life members of parliament, saying “We won. We’ll get our way … Ye lost. It must be hurting.” This time, it was her turn to lose.

At the same time, none of the TDs who opposed the post-repeal abortion legislation lost their seats. Dún Laoighaire, the most liberal constituency in the country, returned a pro-life Fianna Fáil candidate, Cormac Devlin, as one of its four TDs.

An unnoticed pro-life victory? No. The truth is that people didn’t vote on abortion or other social issues at all. An exit poll from the last general election in 2016 found that only two per cent of people voted with abortion as the issue they were most concerned about (that includes pro-choice and pro-life voters). Another two per cent ranked it the second most important issue. Voters weren’t asked about abortion in this year’s exit poll, but the issue barely came up on doorsteps and the results suggest that it wasn’t a major factor.

So what was? What explained the rise of Sinn Féin? In short, healthcare and housing. Thirty-two per cent of voters said that Ireland’s mess of a healthcare system was their most important election issue. Another 26 per cent said it was the housing supply crisis that has left increasing numbers of people homeless and made buying a house impossible for many young people and families. The two issues together gave rise to a widespread sense of pessimism, a sense that the benefits of a booming economy were not being well used or fairly distributed.

The ruling Fine Gael party was perceived as both incompetent and indifferent on housing and health. Fianna Fáil made the right noises on these issues, but it has been supporting the Fine Gael minority government from the opposition benches in a “confidence and supply” arrangement, and a substantial chunk of the electorate didn’t think the party offered a radical enough alternative.

That left Sinn Féin. Its housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin was competent and knowledgeable, and though it has recently drifted to the centre economically, it was still far enough to the left to be seen as a credible agent of change. That, in the end, was enough.

What does all this mean for politically engaged Catholics? Housing, healthcare and economic justice are obviously issues that any Catholic who pays attention to the Church’s social teaching should be deeply concerned about. Bishop Kevin Doran, the member of the hierarchy who spoke out most strongly against repeal of the Eighth Amendment, released a pre-election statement which emphasised all three issues, connecting them to the pro-life position on abortion and the care for refugees in a compelling articulation of the Catholic vision of the common good.

But that vision was not the one that motivated most of the electorate. The majority of Sinn Féin voters were not regular churchgoers. And the fact that almost no one voted on abortion didn’t help new pro-life parties either.

Aontú, the party formed by the former Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín (and the one for which I campaigned in this election), offered voters something very close to the political vision articulated by Bishop Doran, marrying left-leaning policies on housing and health with a pro-life position. Tóibin retained his seat despite a determined attempt by Sinn Féin to oust him, and other Aontú candidates made very respectable outings. But they fell just short of getting the two per cent of the national first-preference vote that would have qualified them for state funding. Like Sinn Féin, Aontú didn’t run enough candidates (only 25). It easily averaged above two per cent throughout the constituencies in which it did run and it is well placed to grow further at the next election. But it’s a long way to go for the only party now in the Dáil with a pro-life platform.

(The other small anti-abortion parties all made immigration an issue to a greater or lesser extent. But only one per cent of the electorate voted on that issue and these parties went nowhere.)

According to exit polls, the overwhelming majority of Aontú voters were weekly Massgoers – 11 per cent of them went to Mass daily – but the majority of weekly Massgoers voted for Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. There is a huge amount of work to be done in convincing practising Catholics to cast their vote according to Catholic values (to say nothing of the rest of the country).

It remains to be seen where Irish politics will go from here. There are still plenty of pro-life TDs, among members of parties as well as independents, and Aontú is here to stay. But if the Catholic vision is to be a political contender, committed Catholics will have to help more people see the faith as something that should inform their entire lives, not just their physical location on a Sunday. For now, we live in a post-Catholic political culture.

Ben Conroy recently graduated from University College Dublin with an MA in philosophy. He studied PPE at Oxford and was co-president of Oxford Students for Life