At the Sinn Féin Ardfheis in Castlebar, Co Mayo, at the weekend, were Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness conjuring at the back of their minds this little movie reel: the pair of them standing proud on the rostrum at the GPO in Dublin for the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016? And that little reverie enhanced by the thought of McGuinness in government at Stormont and Adams in government in Leinster House? It could happen.
They would have had time for such reflection. They were under little pressure in Castlebar. Apart from the European and, in the South, local elections, there should be no big electoral battles ahead for at least a couple of years in either the Republic or Northern Ireland.
So time to take stock, plan, strategise and, perhaps, dream a bit, while also meditating on the collapse of the Progressive Democrats and the Greens and speculating about how to stick the knife deeper into Labour.
Polls, including The Irish Times polls, suggest that, between them, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin could be there or thereabouts in terms of forming a coalition government come the next general election, which must be held by early 2016 at the latest. Those elusive green shoots may have grown into secure economic saplings by then and the electorate will say "thank you" to Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore and re-elect Fine Gael and Labour.
But there is no such guarantee. Certainly, that seems to be the considered view of those nervous Labour TDs sitting on vulnerable seats. So, the start of the ardfheis in the Taoiseach’s home constituency on Friday night seemed the ideal time to ask Adams would he enter into power with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin if the opportunity arose?
“That’s an entirely premature question,” he replied. “My personal position is, no we would not. I’m not mesmerised about being in government except on terms which advance the historic project which we have set ourselves and that is to build a fair and just society and to build a real republic across this island.”
Best of both worlds
And: "Of course we
’d consider from all angles whatever would advance our project.”
That “all” translates as: “We would, we wouldn’t, we might.”
Which, two years or so from a general election, is fair enough. Why give a definitive response when there is still time to work out what is best for Sinn Féin? But Adams and McGuinness will also be considering the wipeout of the PDs and Greens after coalition with Fianna Fáil.
What to do? One senior Sinn Féin source said current thinking was in line with what Ulster Unionist John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) famously said about a draft of the Belfast Agreement 15 years ago: "Wouldn't touch it with a 40ft pole."
Still, the source wasn't ruling anything in or out. So at the moment it's the best of both worlds for Sinn Féin: keep hammering Labour while promising the moon. For instance, Donegal TD Pearse Doherty making a "firm commitment" if Sinn Féin enters government to end the property tax or, as the party cleverly calls it, "the family home tax". Adams repeated that commitment in his main speech. It's all a little odd because he and some other Sinn Féin men and women of property in the North must be paying at least €1,000 in "family home tax" – domestic rates. Perhaps it's that a partitionist mindset is allowed in some circumstances?
The only real tension over the weekend was on Saturday evening during a debate on abortion, with the comment from one delegate that it was “the biggest threat to unity” in Sinn Féin since the peace process, reflecting divisions within the party. But delegates sided with the motion from the ruling ardchomhairle calling on the Government to legislate for the X case. A “right to choose” motion and a motion that members be allowed to vote “according to their conscience” were defeated. It’s an issue that won’t go away.
As regards the North, it was clear from the ardfheis that the relationship between McGuinness and Peter Robinson could, and should, be a lot better. McGuinness didn't namecheck the First Minister but his remark that commentators "with some justification" were critical of the "lack of cohesion between unionist and republican Ministers" made that point just as well.
The union flags row has sown dissension between Robinson and McGuinness even though they continue to carry out businesslike work in their joint office at Stormont Castle. But the marching season approaches and, moreover, Sinn Féin maintains the push for a Border poll on a united Ireland.
Cavan-Monaghan TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin seemed dismissive of fears that pressing hard on constitutional matters right now might be dangerously divisive. Not only would there be a referendum on unity but Irish “unity is going to happen”, he thundered on Friday night.
It doesn’t constitute Kim Jong-un rhetoric, but the nature of action-reaction politics means it is likely to be met by similar “No Surrender” type declamations from unionists and loyalists. Six years ago McGuinness contradicted comments by Adams and Robinson that in the newly formed DUP-Sinn Féin led Northern Executive it would be “battle-a-day” politics.
Battle a day
McGuinness's prediction in his relationship with Ian Paisley, and
initial dealings with Robinson, was borne out as correct. But judging by the ardfheis it looks as if it’s back to a battle a day in the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
Robinson and McGuinness will get the work done but a degree of cordiality is required among coalition leaders.
Meanwhile, Adams and McGuinness will continue to wrestle with the question of whether to opt for coalition or opposition should the prospect present itself. However, the lure of power might be hard to resist regardless of the dangers.
But doesn’t Irish politics present extraordinary possibilities? If Fine Gael and Labour don’t get lucky it is feasible that in Easter 2016 there will be North-South Sinn Féin government ministers. Picture it: McGuinness, who admits he was an IRA leader, and Adams, who doesn’t, taking the salute as the legitimate Óglaigh na hÉireann – the Army – marches past the GPO in Dublin.