Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition? Only a matter of time
Analysis: The parties will likely end up as bedfellows – after Gerry Adams steps down
Gerry Adams and Micheál Martin are unlikely to be the party leaders heading up the coalition – but anything is possible. Picture: Oisin McHugh/FusionShooters
The unspeakable has entered conversation in a most casual manner. So far, it comes in asides and afterthoughts, but not yet as serious discussion. However, it is there: the prospect one day of a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition
Its consideration by Fianna Fáil TDs as a possibility was always going to happen, and the probability that it will actually happen in the medium-term is increasingly accepted, if not universally so.
One of the more remarkable political developments so far this year was the statement by Mary Lou McDonald – Gerry Adams’ presumed successor – that Sinn Féin is now open for business as a junior coalition partner.
Privately, middle-ground Fianna Fáil TDs accept that they will be the ones to bring Sinn Féin in from the cold in the coming five to 10 years – once, of course, Sinn Féin has moved on from Adams.
Micheál Martin, who has an intense hatred for Sinn Féin, will almost certainly not be the leader to take that step, though some senior FF TDs are not even sure about that: “Anything is possible,” said one. “The numbers will dictate.”
Irish politics cannot continue pretending that Sinn Féin, which now has 23 TDs, can be ignored, says another, as if a significant share of voters can be waved away as having made the wrong choice.
“Every party will have to nuance their position. You’re not going to be running up to every door saying you are going into government with Sinn Féin, but you’d say something like you’d work with parties with similar policies.
“I can see no reason why we wouldn’t form a government with TDs other than Gerry Adams. The sooner you get them into government, the sooner they become like any other party,” he said.
Questioned about the blockages to coalition, Fianna Fáil TDs list the need for Adams’s departure, along with others directly linked to the IRA, such as Kerry’s Martin Ferris.
Economic policies, the behind-the-scene dominance of the Northern leadership, the transparency of the party – it is repeatedly referred to as a “cult” – and its performance in office in Northern Ireland are listed, too.
Again and again, Fianna Fáil TDs insist on the need for Sinn Féin to come into the political centre-ground. “They need to show they can make tough decisions, and accept that things need to be paid for,” said one.
This labelling is not accepted by Sinn Féin.
“We are doers, we are pragmatic,” said a senior Sinn Féin figure. “You are not dealing with some kind of spacers. We were the ones who said the USC shouldn’t be scrapped. We are serious about being in government.”
Despite the distaste still felt towards Sinn Féin, the alternative coalition that would command a Dáil majority – one depending on ties with Fine Gael – is even less appealing to some in FF.
“A coalition with Fine Gael would be an unmitigated disaster,” one frontbencher told The Irish Times. “If I had to choose between the two of them, it would be Sinn Féin.”
Some speak almost romantically: “At the moment, I would say Fine Gael because it would be more stable, but the heart will always be the Sinn Féin option – their mad economic policies aside. That’s our space – the republican space.”
However, pragmatism always trumps romanticism in Fianna Fáil. There had been hopes that Labour would revive, yet they now look on Brendan Howlin’s party with despair.
Sinn Féin is eating Labour’s vote, and Fianna Fáil wishes it could adopt its behaviour: “If Sinn Féin ultimately becomes the Labour Party, fine,” said another frontbencher, “But at the moment, they are a cult.”
Unsurprisingly, Sinn Féin dislikes the Labour comparison, but the desire to enter government is apparent: “We’d have to be going in as strong as possible, you’d be talking at least 30 seats,” said a prominent Sinn Féin deputy.
“Labour went in with 37 seats and got kicked around. Our members really want to see us in government, they really do,” the TD adds, but distrust of FF runs deeps at all levels in the party.
The “cult” charge is also rejected, as is Martin’s criticism of how Michelle O’Neill’s was chosen as Sinn Féin leader in the north. O’Neill has said Adams and Martin McGuinness told her she would be leader in the North months before it happened.
“Micheál Martin was hopping up and down about Michelle O’Neill, but he picked his negotiating team for the (government formation) talks last year,” the Sinn Féin TD added.
“There is a lot of power concentrated in Micheál Martin and Deirdre Gillane (Martin’s chef de cabinet). Deirdre Gillane was never elected to anything but she runs the show in Fianna Fáil.”
Sinn Féin is changing. In time, the differences with Fianna Fáil will be less defined, just as the reasons for the two parties not to enter government will be.
The danger, from a Fianna Fáil perspective, is that Fine Gael wants it to ally with Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin’s dream following the last election was a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition that would leave it to dominate Opposition. Similarly, Fine Gael would love a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition that would allow it shore up middle-class votes.
Some Fianna Fáil TDs are alive to that danger: “Our research shows, our canvass returns show that any connection with them is utterly toxic and sends voters in their droves to Fine Gael. Some of our lads don’t get that.”
“They are bunch of hypocrites, going on about equality and fairness,” said another. “But look at how they treated Paudie McGahon, Máiria Cahill and Jean McConville.”
Micheál Martin has said he will not go in to government with Fine Gael to protect the centre ground of Irish politics. By his own standard, he cannot ask Fine Gael to be his junior partner, an offer he refused himself.
Neither will Martin go into office with Sinn Féin. If the Fianna Fáil mountain will not move, then a future of minority governments is in prospect entirely because of Martin’s position.
Yet Martin will not dictate the political weather forever, and change will come.
Those below him are already speaking of it, and they know it will happen, one day.