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Irish Voters Blow Up 2-Party System

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

First there was Brexit, then Trump, now another political earthquake in an English-speaking democracy - Ireland, where Sinn Fein, the former political wing of Irish Republican Army, a terrorist group, won a stunning upset victory last month and broke the nearly century-long grip by Ireland's two dominant parties.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Dublin.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It's hard to overstate the significance of Sinn Fein's victory.

GARY MURPHY: This is the most extraordinary election in the history of the Irish state.

BRIAN HANLEY: I think this is a seismic moment in Irish politics. I don't think the two-party system is going to recover.

LANGFITT: That's Gary Murphy, who teaches Irish politics at Dublin City University, and Brian Hanley, a historian and author of several books on the IRA. Sinn Fein beat both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, the two parties which have monopolized politics here since Ireland's founding in 1922. The reason...

MURPHY: Dissatisfaction with the government is the principal thing. We have full employment here in the Republic. We have a booming economy.

LANGFITT: But, Gary Murphy adds, hospitals are underfunded and understaffed. And there's a huge housing shortage, which has led to soaring homelessness.

MURPHY: It is feeding into this anti-elite, anti-establishment view of the world that we've seen with Brexit and I think that we saw with the election of Donald Trump - working-class voters rebelling against the establishment and looking elsewhere.

EMER MCCORMICK: They want change. People are just fed up with the same old, same old.

LANGFITT: This is Emer McCormick (ph). Like most Irish people, she voted for the two major parties in the past. That changed after the property bubble here burst in 2008, when Fianna Fail was in power.

MCCORMICK: I'm very angry about Fianna Fail. Like, I'm out of college. I have to finish my masters. And, you know, there was no jobs. And I considered, like the rest of my friends, to emigrate.

LANGFITT: The other major party, Fine Gael, came to power in 2011. But Emer says it didn't plan enough affordable housing for when the economy bounced back. Sinn Fein, which political scientists describe as a left-wing populist party, a label it rejects, promised to build 100,000 homes, which appealed to Emer, who runs her own marketing company but, at 37, is still renting. She drove me around her neighborhood to show me the high home prices.

MCCORMICK: Like, for our parents, yes, it was tough. They often, you know, lived in one room. But we're not able even to get the house. I mean, this is the reason why I voted Sinn Fein. It's because, you know, what chance do we have?

LANGFITT: The two traditional parties refused to enter government with Sinn Fein, citing, among other things, its historic links to the IRA. Here's Finne Gael's Leo Varadkar, who's stepping down as Ireland's prime minister.

LEO VARADKAR: For us, a coalition with Sinn Fein is not an option, but we are willing to talk to other parties.

LANGFITT: Sinn Fein's history doesn't bother some young people here, like Jack Lee (ph), a student at Dublin City University. He was born about four years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the Troubles, a sectarian conflict that cost more than 3,600 lives.

JACK LEE: I don't think young voters care so much. The past is the past. We're just kind of like, OK, now, but the future - if Finne Gael and Fianna Fail won't do it, if we have to ask Sinn Fein to do it, so be it.

LANGFITT: Gerry Finucane (ph) is a 74-year-old Aer Lingus retiree who also takes classes here. He voted Finne Gael.

GERRY FINUCANE: I mean, I've been round when the Troubles started. And Sinn Fein and IRA were very closely connected for so long. And the Sinn Fein have never dissociated themselves from the violence that happened.

LANGFITT: Hey, Matt.

MATT CARTHY: Good to see you.

LANGFITT: Nice to see you.

CARTHY: Hello; very nice to meet you.

LANGFITT: Sinn Fein's Matt Carthy won a seat last month in the Dail, the lower house of the Irish parliament. He says the IRA stood down back in 2005. And, Carthy says, the other main parties won't work with Sinn Fein - not because of its past but because they're desperate to cling to power.

CARTHY: I genuinely think some of our political opponents are spooked, and they're stunned by what has happened.

LANGFITT: Is Sinn Fein going to get into government?

CARTHY: The quick answer to your question is yes. The only caveat is we don't know when exactly.

LANGFITT: For now, Irish politics are deadlocked. Political analysts say the two traditional parties could form a coalition to keep Sinn Fein out of power, at least for now.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Dublin.

(SOUNDBITE OF IHF'S "DEPARTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.