SF prepares for government where compromises await
Analysis: party will gain seats in next election, although perhaps fewer than polls suggest
A man dressed as a pikeman from the 1798 rebellion during the annual Sinn Fein Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown, Co Kildare last weekend. Photograph: PA
Gerry Adams confirmed over the weekend Sinn Féin is now thinking 2016 (at the latest) may be the year it makes a historic journey and considers entering government in the south.
The issue arose at the party’s special conference over the weekend convened for its new councillors and MEPs came together for the first time to hear Adams describe the party’s medium-term strategy.
When the next general election takes place - and it could be at the tail-end of next year - it’s a racing certainty Sinn Féin will make big gains on its current standing of 14 seats.
But the gains might not be as spectacular as its opinion poll showings suggest.
Voters look in incredible detail on what parties promise on bread-and-butter issues in general election and on some policy areas Sinn Féin falls far short of giving reassurance that they know what they are doing.
Of the party’s current crop of 14, they have a few stand-out performers but at least half of their TDs are pedestrian, and one or two have made minimal impact since elected.
That said, the Adams speech is important because it has committed the party to a particular approach.
There was a school of thought that Sinn Féin might opt for another period in opposition and bide its time.
The basis for that was: the only real likely options for government would be a grand coalition (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil) or a continuation of the present coalition.
Joan Burton supporters, among others, think this is a possibility.
That could lead to a scenario where Sinn Féin established itself as the biggest party in opposition, eclipsing either Fianna Fáil or Labour - putting itself in position to be the dominant, or determinant, party of any coalition.
But that scenario presumes that things won’t change and the world will stop revolving on its axis. If the economy recovers, gains for a party in opposition (and a protest party particularly) will quickly dilute from solid to marginal.
When you move beyond the rhetoric, the gist of Adams’s message is that it’s time for the party to prepare for government.
“For our part Sinn Féin needs to be ready for government in this State on our terms, agree our policy priorities and political platform. Our commitments need to be deliverable. We are ambitious for change and believe we can deliver on jobs, housing and health,” he said.
While Adams sought to reprise that message on broadcast media today, his experience on Morning Ireland shows that happens when the party is pressurised to make its position clear.
Adams was asked about the party’s core principles and what policies would not be compromised?
One of those was, of course, Irish unity. We will return that presently.
But the only commitment that Adams was prepared to make the removal of the property a condition of entering a coalition.
When it came to the party’s pledge to impose a 48 per cent tax on anybody earning over €100,000 there was a bit of dancing around the ring.
Under repeated questioning Adams eventually said Sinn Féin has not settled on the issue, and that this along with many other areas, will be the subject of internal discussion.
And that’s the rub.
Coalition means compromise. Compromise can be seen as betrayal. Betrayal means votes go elsewhere.
Going into coalition is like buying a new car. The moment you drive away from the forecourt you know that value has already dropped.
The problem for Sinn Féin is it has hundreds of populist pledges, all of which have a cost attached, and not all of which can be achieved, even if it achieves a unitary government.
It was interesting to hear Adams stress the core aspiration of Irish unity this morning, as you don’t often hear Sinn Féin representatives in the South talking about this matter much.
But does raking up the nasty stuff that was done in the name of Irish freedom have any traction anymore?
Some believe that Adams’ arrest over the disappearance of Jean McConville was a watershed on the question.
People might not believe his denials that he was a leading figure in the IRA or that he had anything to do with McConville’s disappearance or murder. But they don’t care anymore, went that explanation.
I’m not so sure. The leading figures who led the IRA from violence to peace are the selfsame leading figures who led the IRA from a relatively peaceful path to venal violence in the first place.
And when you see military republicans seeking inquiries because of some brutal treatment, or collusion, or infringements of human rights, you kind of wonder what codes of fairness and justice and human decency did they obey when the armed struggle was at its height.
Besides civilian deaths, its treatment of its own informers may be something that will be more closely scrutinised in the next year or two.
What is most striking about the Sinn Féin strategy is that its template is the approach Fianna Fáil took between 1927 and 1932.
The similarities are striking.
The mythic status the party gave to Eamon de Valera, is replicated in the approach to Adams.
The militaristic structure and discipline used to build up the organisation: ditto.
The emphasis on Irish unity and on the language: ditto again.
The focus on housing for working-class families and small farmers; and preference for small holdings and fishing families. Again, the same. Small is good, big is bad.
There is the populist stuff too.
Fianna Fáil posters in the run-up to 1932, claimed government “jobbery” and a commitment to lower the “waste and extravagance” of government. It also promised lower salaries for senior public servants.
“No man is worth more than a thousand pounds a year,” said de Valera, in an earlier iteration of Sinn Féin’s boast of its TDs living on the average industrial wage.
It is possible 2016 won’t quite be a 1932 for Sinn Féin.
But the party is strong and they will constantly remind us they haven’t gone away and are unlikely to.