Sinn Féin's changed coalition stance is the big political move of 2017

Opinion: Leo Varadkar has potential but he has failed to show it so far

Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald: at the start of this year they both signalled that the party needed to review its position on coalition. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald: at the start of this year they both signalled that the party needed to review its position on coalition. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The Dáil stuttered to its summer recess on Friday, a last minute rush of legislation this week hardly disguising the fact that the pace of parliamentary and governmental activity has slowed to a crawl since the beginning of the year.

The recess lasts until September 20th – plenty of time for Leo Varadkar to figure out what he wants the Government’s new political message for the autumn to be, and to plot out a strategy for the remaining life of the Coalition.

Given the preparation the new Taoiseach put into getting where he is, it is surprising that he did not come to office with the vision thing more fully worked out, though I am given to understand he expects to do so in the early autumn.

If Varadkar wants to change the present political currents, he’s not going to do it by the steady-as-she-goes approach he has exhibited since he came to office.

In the few weeks since his election there is really no sign that Varadkar has changed the Government by anything more substantial than making it look younger. This may be significant, but it is hardly likely to be sufficient to persuade people to change their minds about the Government. He has not demonstrated that he will improve it’s ability to deliver in the areas where people believe it should – public services, housing and so on. You know, the things people actually care about.

Potential to change

Recent underwhelming opinion poll results would tend to bear this out. I think Varadkar may have the potential to change the political equation. But he has not done it so far, and nor has he demonstrated how he might do so.

Nonetheless, looking back at the last six months, Varadkar’s ascension to the leadership of the country is the standout moment.

However, despite its justified historic prominence, I suspect that it will not turn out to be the most politically significant event of the first half of 2017.

The signal from Sinn Féin that the party may be willing to enter government as a minority partner after the next election will transform the process of government formation after the next election, and dramatically alter the terms of the election campaign itself.

Every opinion poll since the last general election has suggested that voters would return something like the current Dáil if they were consulted. Probably independents would lose a few seats, and Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil might gain a few. But the dilemma that faced the parties of the governing centre last year would face them again. The choices would be a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition (Micheál Martin will not be able to rule that out again) or a repeat of a minority government supported by a confidence and supply agreement. Unless something changes.

Government formation

Sinn Féin’s signal earlier this year that it may be willing to come out to play the game of government formation would be that change.

At the last election, the party said it would only enter government if it was leading a left-wing government. In fact, this stance was not about the last election, it was about the next one; it was the expression of a two-election strategy that the party hoped would see Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil forced together into a coalition, leaving Sinn Féin to lead the opposition and thereby challenge realistically to lead the government after the next election.

Cast your mind back to the long period of government formation between February and May of last year and you might recall Sinn Féin calling for the big two to form a government despite having spent the election campaign warning the voters that either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in government would be a disaster.

But the Sinn Féin plan was wrong-footed by Martin’s refusal to accept Enda Kenny’s offer of a grand coalition and the subsequent construction of the minority government and the confidence and supply agreement. It meant the two-election strategy was dead.

And so at the end of January of this year Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams both signalled that the party needed to review its position on coalition. McDonald said they needed to have “a conversation” about it; Adams suggested that party positions can always be changed by an ardfheis and he never really believed the previous strategy anyway. This is unlikely to have been a coincidence. A series of internal party meetings since then have not focused on the coalition question, I am told, but a further series of meetings scheduled for the autumn may do so. The party is setting out a strategic 10-year plan, Adams told a recent conference in Ballyfermot, and it’s difficult to imagine that it attitude to coalition won’t be part of that.

If the party goes ahead and formally changes its attitude to coalition – then the question of who forms the next government will be utterly different in the next election than it was in the last one. And when you change the question, you usually get a different answer.

It will present a bigger dilemma, I think, for Micheál Martin than for Leo Varadkar. There is nobody in Varadkar’s party that envisages a government with Sinn Féin; there are quite a few in Martin’s party that would welcome the prospect of a return to power leading a coalition with Sinn Féin.

Even the realistic prospect of that would change the terms of a general election campaign.

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