Doherty and McDonald out front as SF seeks Adams successor
Sinn Féin’s long-term project is to edge into the mainstream for possible coalition
Sinn Féin frontbench members Mary Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty (left) and Gerry Adams: the party is looking to plot its best way forward. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire
Sometime about 2005, when there was a spike in support for Sinn Féin in opinion polls, the possibility of a coalition arrangement with Fianna Fáil was canvassed in the media. When asked about it at a doorstep interview, then taoiseach Bertie Ahern did not dismiss it out of hand but suggested it was an event that might occur only in the distant future.
He said Sinn Féin was at that same stage in the mid-2000s that Sinn Féin the Workers’ Party had been at in the early 1980s. The conclusion was obvious – Sinn Féin was on a journey but its destination was two decades away.
Almost 10 years later the Rubicon has not yet been crossed. But while other parties will publicly baulk at the prospect of a coalition with Sinn Féin, the possibility is no longer ruled out with finality.
For now, the political reality is that it will be unlikely for Sinn Féin to be in a coalition in the 32nd Dáil from 2016. Unlikely but not impossible.
Going nowhere fast
For three years in the last Dáil (between 2007 and 2010), Sinn Féin was going nowhere fast. Its four TDs were making little impact. Its policy corpus in the Republic was weak, especially in finance. Two events happened in quick succession that put a wind behind the party in the run-up to the February 2011 election.
The first was Pearse Doherty’s high-octane byelection win in Donegal South-West, which electrified the party and boosted its morale. The second was the implosion of the coalition. The party won 14 seats. The arrival of Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald into the Dáil signalled it would be a more formidable adversary for rivals.
The results also reflected some step-changes in attitude among voters to Sinn Féin. It attracted transfers in far greater numbers than previously.
The toxicity of Fianna Fáil was a factor but the likes of Sandra McLellan in Cork East, Peadar Tóibín in Meath West and Brian Stanley in Laois-Offaly demonstrated voters were no longer averse to transfer lower preferences to Sinn Féin candidates.
The long-term project for Sinn Féin – even though its dominant personalities will cavil about whether it is the case – is one of ministering, a gradual move towards the left of the centre. The aspiration is that in a generation its violent past will be diluted to a tinge – what the Civil War is to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
Other parties see Adams – and the cloying sentimentality of some of his Dáil speeches – as a liability, arguing that he doesn’t get the Republic. That may be a beltway view, not shared beyond the confines of Leinster House. To be reductionist about it, he’s a huge “brand” for Sinn Féin. He arrived into Louth in 2011 and 15,000 voted for him, underlining that appeal.