There is now an absolute moral imperative to include Sinn Féin in government. The sheer impact of its electoral success means that leaving it out of government or any attempt to exclude the party would have both a debilitating and a damaging effect on our democracy. This may be an unpalatable message for those from the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil tradition.
The Sinn Féin surge in election 2020 is as remarkable as it was unexpected. It came as a surprise to the party itself, which under-provided on the candidate side, and was unable to capture the full extent of the surge in seat terms.
While the final seats have yet to be allocated it is clear that in first preference votes Sinn Féin is the biggest party in the country and a crucial player in the post-election search to create a viable coalition government. Fianna Fáil will probably be the biggest party in terms of Dáil seats at Leinster House.
This new reality of a three-party political system was swiftly acknowledged by Micheál Martin from his count centre in Cork South Central when he gently and with the necessary degree of hesitation opened the door to the possibility of sitting down with Sinn Féin despite the election rhetoric. The numbers speak for themselves and Mary Lou McDonald has a clear mandate for inclusion in government. Micheál Martin’s running mate and finance spokesman Michael McGrath was equally swift to quell notions of a done deal with Sinn Féin by repeating the election mantra of the economic and financial incompatibilities of the two parties policies.
The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar quickly reaffirmed his principled objection to having Sinn Féin in government and given the losses he and his party have incurred there appears to be an appetite in Fine Gael to regroup in opposition. In effect Fine Gael will sit out the government formation process and if negotiations by others fail to achieve a government then they will be able to step back in offering confidence and supply or even a formal coalition agreement. The odds, for now, are firmly against Fine Gael returning to government. However one never knows what the next week will bring in politics.
The process of forming a government will take weeks to achieve and stretch well beyond the formal return of the Dáil on February 20th. In the meantime Mary Lou McDonald will attempt to put together a broad left alternative to either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. There is an element of ritual to this as the numbers are not there to achieve this. Micheál Martin will focus on the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats as well as the so-called “gene pool Fianna Fáil” Independents. When the Dáil formalities are over then the real negotiations will begin. For both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil there are significant hurdles to jump in relation to passionate objections from within the ranks of their own TDs and memberships.
Senior figures within Fianna Fáil are already speaking differently, with their justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan opposing a move towards the Sinn Féin option and the experienced former front bencher from Clare Timmy Dooley TD appearing to feel it may be necessary.
To put such a coalition together will involve delicate handling. Already there is talk that the Green Party will be included both to bolster the Dáil numbers in terms of a Dáil majority and as a circuit breaker between the obvious political tensions in an arrangement between Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil. It would also go some way towards assuaging the public appetite for change and resolute action on climate change.
It is far too early to speculate about ministerial portfolios, but given the strength of the Sinn Féin protest vote and mandate there is a persuasive case to be made that they should be given responsibility for housing and health. Fianna Fáil will probably insist that they retain the finance, foreign affairs and justice portfolios. Foreign affairs is out for Sinn Féin given the conflicts of interests created by the party’s role and presence on both sides of the Border.
However, the message from this election is very clear – the duopoly is over and, while the Sinn Féin surge may be a once-off, the party itself is embedded in our political system and a permanent feature.
Conor Lenihan was minister for science, technology and innovation in the last Fianna Fáil government and served as a TD for 14 years.