Sinn Fein's Denise Mitchell celebrates during the Irish General Election count at the RDS in Dublin, Ireland, in this Feb. 9, 2020, file photo. Credit: Niall Carson | PA via AP

Bertie Ahern, who was the taoiseach (prime minister) of the Irish Republic from 1997 to 2008, was a brilliant machine politician, not a nationalist or an ideologist. In fact, if you said the word “principle” in his presence, he might have to look up the meaning. But here’s what he said after the Sinn Fein Party came first in last Saturday’s Irish election.

“I think a border poll [on the unification of the Republic and Northern Ireland, which is currently part of the United Kingdom] is inevitable. If you ask me when that is, I think it’s probably five years off at least. … but it will be inevitable over this decade.” Are we about to see the final, peaceful solution to the 400-year-old “Irish problem”?

Not necessarily, but the long, frozen stability of Irish politics both north and south of the border is definitely dissolving. In Northern Ireland, the Catholics have finally achieved the “revenge of the cradle,” displacing the Protestants as the majority population — at a time when, coincidentally, the turmoil of Brexit is making all the old certainties about the province’s ties to the U.K. open to question.

In the south, independent from the U.K. for a century and home to almost three-quarters of the island’s 6.6 million people, almost everybody is of Catholic heritage and matters have long seemed more settled. Politics was dominated by two center-right parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, neither of which gave more than lip-service to the notion of unification with the North.

In these circumstances Sinn Fein, an all-Ireland leftist and nationalist party that operated as the political front of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the “Troubles,” had little attraction for voters in the Republic. It was Northern-dominated and linked to terrorism, and both of the major parties in Dublin refused to have anything to do with it.

And now, suddenly, Sinn Fein ends up with more votes than any other party in the Republic. What happened?

This political revolution is not driven by Irish nationalism. Few of the people who voted for Sinn Fein cared much about the North, unification, or any of that old stuff.

They voted for Sinn Fein because they were fed up with high rents, housing shortages and long hospital waiting lists. Their only alternative was to vote for the same two old parties that have been passing power back and forth for a hundred years, so they ignored Sinn Fein’s IRA links and voted for it anyway.

Those links recently became easier to ignore because Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s leader for 35 years and simultaneously a senior officer in the IRA (though he always denied it) finally retired in 2018. His successor, Mary Lou McDonald, definitely has no blood on her hands, and she was born in the Republic, not in the North. She’s voter-friendly, not scary, and she got the votes.

Irish politics is clearly now a three-horse race, in the sense that Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael each got between 21 percent and 25 percent of the vote. But that leaves each of them with fewer than half the seats they would need for a majority in the Dail (parliament).

Prospects for viable coalition-making were looking grim after the election, with both traditional major parties saying they would never enter a coalition with Sinn Fein. The only viable alternative was yet another deal between the two traditional major parties — but that is what the voters had just revolted against.

It will therefore take some time to make a deal, but one will be reached eventually, and it will probably include a place for Sinn Fein. Mary Lou McDonald said it plainly — “We are going to have a unity referendum” — and Fintan O’Toole, the best Irish political commentator of his generation, explained what that means in his column in the Irish Times.

“[The voters] have gone where they were warned not to go,” he wrote, “and in doing so they have redrawn the map of Irish politics to include territory previously marked ‘Here Be Dragons.’”

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).”