Sinn Féin policies to face scrutiny in push for power

In its move towards the mainstream, Sinn Féin will find its fiscal strategies drawing deeper analysis

Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams: his position is secure and he is likely to stay on as party leader. Photograph: Eric Luke

Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams: his position is secure and he is likely to stay on as party leader. Photograph: Eric Luke

Tue, May 27, 2014, 01:00

A decade ago, then taoiseach Bertie Ahern was asked about the likelihood of Fianna Fáil going into a coalition with Sinn Féin. Surprisingly, he did not reject the proposition out of hand. He said the party was on a journey, much like the one that saw Sinn Féin The Workers Party become Democratic Left before being subsumed into the Labour Party.

He pointed out that that change had taken 20 years and indicated it would take the same period of time for Sinn Féin.

Well, Ahern was right about the mainstreaming of provisional republicanism but wrong about the timeframe. It may only take a decade. For in 20 months’ time – and perhaps much less – Sinn Féin will emerge from a general election in a strong position and will be prepared – in theory at least – to cross the Rubicon and enter government in the South for the first time.

It’s a perilous exercise reading too much into a midterm election result but this has been anything but a run-of-the-mill election and this is not a settled or run-of-the-mill period. It’s questionable whether Sinn Féin could turn around and achieve the same in a general election. But there is no party as good at consolidation, and it will certainly not rest on its laurels.

Based on the results this weekend, the party would make gains in 15 constituencies at the very least (bringing its overall Dáil seat tally to 28 out of 158). The seats where gains could be made are Carlow-Kilkenny; Cavan-Monaghan; Cork South Central; Dublin Bay North; Dublin West; Dublin North; Dublin Mid West: Dublin South West (a second TD here); Galway West; Offaly; Limerick; Louth; Waterford; Wexford; and Wicklow.

Dedicated activists Sinn Féin, unlike other smaller parties, has a large number of people who work full time for it in one role or another (its three European candidates were already full-time employees of the party, Matt Carthy for the past 15 years).

A lot of its smartest strategists from the North (with their vast experience) are now working full time on the southern project.

The party is gradually becoming more mainstream and creating an ever greater distance from its legacy of violence and armed struggle (never denied, never apologised for, but no longer central to its core aims).

Gerry Adams’s position is secure and it would not be surprising if he stayed on as leader post the next election. The party is conscious of not leaving a power vacuum in his wake as the SDLP did with John Hume. Mary Lou McDonald is a natural successor.

Sometimes what seems seamless can become tangled – Brian Cowen, after all, was seen as Ahern’s natural successor.

Conscious of that, you can be sure that Sinn Féin will leave nothing to chance when testing McDonald’s mettle and durability when the moment comes and the baton is passed.

Adams’s comments over the past few days suggest his party is ready for government but, at the same time, he has disclosed nothing about when Sinn Féin will jump – in 2016 or the following election.

One refrain from him of late has been his call for a realignment of the left. That’s not feasible in the short term. The only realistic coalition arrangement for Sinn Féin that might have the numbers would be with Fianna Fáil. The only other arrangement that looks viable at this juncture is the equally radical departure of a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil grand coalition.

Policies questioned The elections have come relatively late in the five-year cycle of this Government and it will be difficult for it to repair and undo the damage that has been caused.

That said, it is certain that Sinn Féin policies and its dispensation on the big economic and political issues (aside from the national question) will come under increasing scrutiny.

The party has ridden a wave of populism since 2011, and has become the home of a growing number of voters who are anti-establishment and against the austere policies that have been prevalent since 2011.

But in the run-up to the Gilmore-for-taoiseach hyperbole in 2009 and 2010, Labour indulged in that kind of opposition without producing proper and meaningful policy positions. When hard questions started to be asked about its alternatives, its support levels began backsliding.

Similarly with Sinn Féin, it argues that all its economic policies have been costed by the Department of Finance. Which they may be, individually. But then there are measures outside its pure budgetary policies (universal free healthcare for all citizens) that come with a price tag and will need to be costed.

The party has not taken fully into account the effect one measure will have on another. Wealth tax is still on its agenda but it no longer forms part of its budgetary arithmetic. But its vows to abolish the universal social charge, water charges and the property tax will be costly, and it will have to really convince it can find comparable funding elsewhere.

Like shooting stars, smaller parties tend to shine briefly before fading. Sinn Féin looks like an exception. Indeed, it is no longer a small party. Its fortunes will wax and wane but, make no mistake about, it is here to stay.

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