In the early 1990s, a representative of one of the ratings agencies arrived in Dublin to meet experts and academics while reporting on how Ireland was performing economically. Among those he met was a senior political journalist. A general election was imminent and the opinion polls were suggesting that the Labour Party would do well.
The ratings agency guy said it seemed to him from the election rhetoric that a Labour-influenced government would fundamentally alter the course of Irish economic policy. The journalist dismissed the suggestion out of hand. “Labour is not going to change anything. No matter who is in power, it will all remain the same.”
The reply might have had more than a sprinkle of cynicism but the net point was strong. Reinventing the wheel is not a regular occurrence in settled democracies. New governments – even those with a radical change agenda – find that the faster they try to go, the faster their wheels spin in the mud. The superstructure of the Irish State budges haltingly and slowly.
There’s been a long history in Irish politics of new brushes sweeping suspiciously like the old brush. When it looked like the radical new party Fianna Fáil could gain power in 1932, the government party Cumann na nGaedheal went full throttle with negative campaigning.
“The gunmen are voting Fianna Fáil, the communists are voting Fianna Fáil,” read one of its posters. Another focusing on Eamon de Valera, read: “Devvy’s Circus, absolutely the greatest road show in Ireland today – Señor de Valera, world famous illusionist, oath swallower and escapologist. See his renowned act. Escaping from the straitjacket of the Republic. Frank F Aiken, fearsome fire-eater. Shaunty O’Kelly, the man in dress clothes. Monsieur Lemass, famous tightrope performer, see him cross from the Treaty to the Republic every night.”
The scare tactics did not work and failed to halt the Fianna Fáil juggernaut. The fears stoked were unfounded. Fianna Fáil had new policies – especially on housing provision – but little that could be classified as revolutionary in the context of the age.
And so it is with Sinn Féin. The next general election is not due to take place until 2025. Before that are the local elections and the European elections in 2024.
Before a vote is cast Sinn Féin is on a winner. It had dismal showings in both polls in 2019. It saw its number of council seats halved from 159 to 81, and garnered only 9.5 per cent of the vote, a 5.7 per cent fall from 2014.
The party also lost two of its three European Parliament seats. It was that poor performance that influenced its decision to run a reduced slate in the 2020 election hardly six months later, unaware of the extraordinary windfall that was about to come its way.
So, starting from a low base in 2024, it is highly likely that Sinn Féin will be the big winner in those two elections, taking votes – and seats – from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Even returning to the status quo ante will give it momentum going into the 2025 general election. Of course, second-tier elections are not a direct indicator of performance in general elections (as many, including me, painfully found out in 2020) but in this instance, Sinn Féin will be able to galvanise a growing view among the public that it can be trusted by the electorate to govern the country.
We are coming close to that point now. Bertie Ahern, always an astute reader of emerging trends, did an interview in 2005 when he said that Sinn Féin in the south was not ready for government and would need a period of time to transition, as happened with the evolution of Sinn Féin The Workers’ Party. He predicted it would take two decades.
It looks like he was on the money. Many in the older generation view the prospect of a Sinn Féin government with horror, given its bloody legacy. For anybody under the age of 30, that does not register.
The party has adopted a left-leaning and populist agenda in opposition and has gained traction with the young, especially with its housing policies.
Some of those grand promises, especially in health and housing, will take years to be realised, if ever
The party’s policy offerings in some areas are thin. Its climate change policies have little credibility. It supports the targets but has no thought-out ideas on how to achieve them other than to oppose the key policies of the current Government including the carbon tax. Its own alternative budget last year had the cheek to include a sucker payment for cows and sheep (€124 million) as a “climate change” measure (when such a payment would lead to increased emissions).
Its promises will leave a good few hostages to fortune – 20,000 social and affordable homes in a year, full redress for Mica and pyrite homes, the pension age reduced to 65, no increases in carbon tax, rent relief, welfare increases, VAT reductions on fuel and energy prices, abolition of property tax, reductions in creche fees, State-run childcare facilities, large increases in health spending and provision (including €250 million to tackle waiting lists). As against that, it promises to balance the books by increasing the tax take from those who earn more than €100,000, and by targeting more punitive taxes on the perceived villains of the housing and economic crisis (banks, speculators, vulture funds, data centres).
Some of those grand promises (especially in health and housing) will take years to be realised, if ever. In interviews earlier this year Mary Lou McDonald sounded like she was tempering expectations of what the party can achieve in a first term in government. She is right. The biggest reality for any new government isn’t change. It is compromise. Sinn Féin, if it gains power, will be no different from any other party in that respect.