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Command and control: How would Sinn Féin navigate government in the Republic?

Danger of party is not that it undermines the State, but that it fails to master it

Sinn Féin’s election to government in the Republic would end a century-old status quo. In that narrative it is comeuppance for the elites who profited from it. Internationally, Mary Lou McDonald will garner headlines and celebrity. Symbolically, she would be the first woman taoiseach, adding to the change Sinn Féin promises. Echoing events at the foundation of the State, a former paramilitary insurgency becomes the new establishment.

Should Sinn Féin lead, the issue is how it will manage the art of government. Received wisdom about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose is exaggerated. Few campaigns are poetic and prose implies an order seldom awaiting incoming ministers. Government itself is an inflated term. It is a confederation of institutions which only occasionally, and usually only in crisis, can be corralled into a shared political agenda.

Sinn Féin’s election on a wave of expectation will seem to its supporters more like regime change than a change of government. An irony is that if Sinn Féin delivers electorally on the opinion polls, it will be overwhelmingly at the expense of those on its left. It is all drawing room drama now, but on current polls the partner capable of making up most but probably not all of the numbers McDonald needs to become taoiseach is Fianna Fáil. It is unlikely Sinn Féin will lead a radical left government. There is no complexion of coalition foreseeable that chimes in appearance with the change Sinn Féin promises.

Therein lies one of many conundrums it will have to grapple with. Another is that the economic tide has turned. The lead-in to an election in 2025 is unlikely to be a happy time. The growing Sinn Féin base is both disaffected and economically literate. A big spending manifesto à la its 2020 production, may not convince and in any event won’t be affordable. Generally, there are two streams of events that flummox government: the self-inflicted and the unexpected. There is a political instinct in every election campaign to throw everything at it. Unnecessary and unaffordable promises on the way in become millstones on arrival. The unexpected cannot be provided for, however. The current programme for government mentions neither inflation nor Ukraine.

Little in opposition prepares for government. Ministers are accoutred in status but frequently find power elusive

An immediate challenge for Sinn Féin now is to keep the cauldron of public indignation bubbling while putting as few essential ingredients into it as possible. Its ultimate challenge in government will be to prioritise a very few essential objectives. The first budget will determine much that follows. If internationally the public gallery may applaud the arrival of taoiseach McDonald, the international money markets are mercenary. If fiscal looseness results in Ireland having to pay higher interest rates on government debt, it will deeply damage the next government's credibility.

Little in opposition prepares for government. Ministers are accoutred in status but frequently find power elusive. They are responsible for everything but in charge of almost nothing. A new government has about 10 days to decide on its legacy. The first 100 days evaporate almost instantly. Unless there is a clear course, with overriding priorities embarked upon immediately, an opportunity is lost which will not recur. The status quo that Sinn Féin’s election would sweep away, has a hundred thousand friends in official Ireland.

The party’s relationship with the civil service is crucial. The stone-cold reality is that to govern is to choose. If fundamental choices are made, particularly on housing, Sinn Féin in government will be reliant on the civil service on this and more for delivery. There will be no rebellion, only a use of time that is corrosive to political momentum.

The dynamic of government will reorientate gravity in Sinn Féin, towards its parliamentary party. That will be a significant cultural change

The State is trapped in a broken bargain with its civil service. It was once a simple vow. Civil servants wouldn’t tell the truth about Ministers and Ministers wouldn’t tell lies about them. Officials are now routinely road kill for improvident politicians. That is partly driven by the inherent opacity in which civil servants are in charge but not responsible. The underlying cause is political refusal to reform or to take responsibility. The founding purpose of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is now; mission abandoned. There is no sign of Sinn Féin expressing interest in serious structural reform. That’s a pity because it is an essential relationship that must be repaired, and a system that must be reformed. Our first revolution was a very conservative affair and if Sinn Féin is to deliver, current structures won’t do it. It is at grave risk of being the change that allows things to stay the same.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Sinn Féin in government is its own command and control culture. With up to 20 senior and junior ministers in a putative government, making decisions at speed across different departments, command and control is fantasy. The dynamic of government will reorientate gravity in Sinn Féin, towards its parliamentary party. That will be a significant cultural change for the party. Its inherent tribalism means it is unlikely to trust or allow outside expertise among its advisers in government. But it must both reform the official system and muster real expertise to counter it.

Election is merely entitlement to office. Office is only the shadow of power. The danger of Sinn Féin is not that it undermines the State, but that it fails to master it.

Fintan O’Toole is on leave