Buoyant Sinn Féin edges further into political mainstream
SF is consolidating its position, aiming to replace Labour in a recast 2½ party system
Sinn Féin deputy Dáil leader Pearse Doherty; Louise O’Reilly; leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill; and president Mary Lou McDonald urging a Yes vote in the abortion referendum. Photograph: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland, and party president Mary Lou McDonald. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Sinn Féin faces into its first ardfheis with Mary Lou McDonald as leader in bullish form.
The transition from Gerry Adams to McDonald has gone well, and she was one of the stars of the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
Her statements that Sinn Féin wants power after the next election – and is not fussy about who it does business with, as long as the terms are right – has made the party a player in debates about coalition before and after the next election.
“The dander is up a bit,” says one figure. Internally, at all levels, the main topic for conversation is about government – although opinion is divided on how serious some of these discussions actually are.
Suggestions that McDonald is merely engaged in a tactical manoeuvre to keep Sinn Féin relevant while maintaining an ambition to be the lead Opposition party – and, in time, the lead government party – are dismissed.
There are two “parallel projects” in play, says one party source. One is to make Sinn Féin the largest Dáil party, and the other is to ensure that elements of its agenda are implemented.
Patience to wait for the first goal to be achieved in order to realise the second has run out: “I get the sense that the leadership really want to do business, if the conditions are right,” the source added.
“We need to be seen as a party of government and not just of opposition. It needs a gear change. It has happened in the North but it hasn’t happened here,” The Irish Times was told.
This means, according to party insiders, thinking ahead about how to interact with the civil service and with other southern parties who are well versed in the politics of coalition.
A motion to be put before the ardfheis in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, this weekend said Sinn Féin’s only objective after the next election should be the formation of left wing government.
That it was amended by the ard chomhairle, the party’s executive council, to relegate the importance of left-wing government to an attempted, rather than binding, objective says much about the mood of McDonald and those near her.
Against this ambition stands the outright refusal – in public at least – of the leaderships of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to consider such an alliance, although many in both parties are privately relaxed about a potential Sinn Féin deal.
Yet, bit by bit, Sinn Féin is chipping away at the reasons given by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – both to themselves and to others – for keeping Sinn Féin out of government.
Sound on economics
McDonald’s leadership is a step away from the past; her warm words to business are designed to reassure it that Sinn Féin is sound on economics; and Brexit has almost made Ode to Joy as popular a tune as Óró Sé do Bheatha ’Bhaile.
For decades, particularly under the leadership of her predecessor, Gerry Adams, the party was often described as a cult where no leadership positions were contested.
This weekend, however, there are signals that this is changing. Eoin Ó Broin, the housing spokesman, is standing against Dawn Doyle for the position of general secretary.
Ó Broin is from the left of the party and is Dublin-based. His bid is an attempt to win a place on the officer board, where key decisions are made. It is an open expression of ambition, one not often seen.
In the eyes of people in Sinn Féin, the reasons for excluding Sinn Féin from government are ever narrowing, and the hard lines taken by Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar are not taken seriously.
“I’ve been around a long time,” says Kerry TD and a former senior figure in the Provisional IRA, Martin Ferris: “I’d heard them say they wouldn’t go in with Proinsias de Rossa and others, and a few weeks later they were in government.”
Ferris, who, like Adams, will retire at the next election, says the current feeling towards his party is as good as anything that he has seen since the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement.
However, he is cautious about opinion polls. A jump to 17 or 18 per cent of all votes cast, from just shy of 14 per cent at the last election, will not lead to a substantially increased haul of seats.
In 2016, Sinn Féin won 23 Dáil seats. Today, most in the party expect some gains, but it is unlikely to breach the 30-seat mark.
Despite its long-term ambitions, the trajectory at the next election points to the consolidation of Sinn Féin’s position as the new “half” party in Irish politics, replacing Labour in a recast 2½ party system.
But the enthusiasm for coalition is not shared everywhere in Sinn Féin. A large minority have significant reservations, concerned that they will share the fate of the Progressive Democrats, Labour and others after they made the leap.
“But we are not the Labour Party. We’ve served in the North with the DUP,” said a source, insisting that Sinn Féin can break the mould of Irish politics, and not be broken by it.
Striking a balance
For now, Sinn Féin must identify its key ambitions if it does get into office, and must realise, too, that a balance has to be struck between getting what it wants and accepting what it is uncomfortable with.
In Belfast this weekend, it is identifying three priorities: Irish unity, health and housing. “Front and centre of everything the party does is the unity agenda,” said a source. “That informs everything, let’s be clear.”
In office, that could, for example, mean legislating to help bring about an all-island public health service, or settling on a common understanding with a coalition partner on the approach to be taken about a unity referendum.
Starting points could be Northern Irish representation in the Oireachtas – most likely the Seanad, to begin with – and extending the vote in presidential elections to citizens in Northern Ireland.
McDonald must also decide if Sinn Féin should stand against Michael D Higgins, who is expected to confirm next month that he wants a second term as president.
The view in Áras an Uachtaráin is that Sinn Féin will not stand against Higgins, and there is no great appetite to do so, according to party insiders. Publicly, however, it has said it would run if there were to be a contest – but not that it would force an election in the absence of other candidates.
McDonald has said she believes there should be an election. But TDs say nobody within the party is expressing a desire to stand. Higgins shares a lot of Sinn Féin’s left-wing politics, and older members speak fondly of his record, including repealing section 31 of the broadcasting ban as minister for arts in 1994.
“If Michael D Higgins wants to run again, I don’t think we will run anyone against him,” said one TD. “He has very good international politics and a good social conscience.”
However, there has been little talk about it. The general election remains the priority. TDs who canvassed heavily during the abortion referendum say local organisations will benefit from the campaign practice.
“We basically ran the logistics of the campaign, not that I’d say that,” said one TD of the pro-repeal efforts in their constituency.
The fallout from the referendum will be felt in Belfast. An Ard Comhairle motion will, when passed, allow it to determine the party position on the abortion legislation to come before the Dáil and Seanad. In effect it will free TDs and Senators to vote for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks.
Another motion – the fourth in recent years – calls for a free vote, but this will almost certainly be defeated. McDonald will have to decide how to discipline anti-abortion TDs such as Peadar Tóibín and Carol Nolan if they defy the whip when the legislation comes before the Dáil.
Ordinarily, those who rebel are stripped of their party membership for a number of months, as happened Toibín in the past, but there are some who believe that an even tougher line is a possibility.
“You can stretch the elastic so much, but it could break,” said one party figure, who said there is a chance – albeit a slim one – that Toibín could find himself expelled from the party for good.
“That’s a possibility. At some stage, someone might just say: ‘Ah here, f**k off.’ ”