Sinn Féin faces up to political reality
Move increases the chances of the party taking part in a coalition government
The disclosure by Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald that the party is open to the idea of taking part in the next coalition government as the junior partner represents a substantial shift in policy.
Before the last election Sinn Féin was adamant that it would only get involved in a coalition if it was the major party in government. On the basis of a succession of opinion polls it appeared to have a realistic prospect of challenging Fianna Fáil for the position of the second largest party in the Dáil. Sinn Féin devised a two-election strategy in anticipation that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would be forced into a coalition after the 2016 election. Such a development would have left Sinn Féin as the leading party of Opposition with an ambition of becoming the biggest party in the Dáil at the subsequent election.
The strategy failed, however, because Fianna Fáil did considerably better than forecast, maintaining a significant lead over Sinn Féin. Even more importantly Fianna Fáil refused to go into coalition with Fine Gael, opting instead for the confidence and supply arrangement that enabled Enda Kenny to continue as Taoiseach. That has left Sinn Féin with a dilemma, unsure whether to focus its attacks on the Government or Fianna Fáil. To compound its problems the party has had to deal with increasing pressure in its urban heartland from a variety of left wing forces buoyed up by their success on the water charges issue.
The change of direction signalled by Ms McDonald on The Irish Times ‘Inside Politics’ Podcast – framed in the context of the need for a conversation within Sinn Féin between now and the next election – is a recognition of political reality. If the party wants to be in government after that, it has to drop its insistence on only going into coalition as the largest party. The question arises, though, as to whether either of the larger parties would consider a coalition with Sinn Féin. On the face of it there is no chance of Fine Gael agreeing to such a coalition, even in the unlikely event that Sinn Féin was willing.
A coalition with Fianna Fáil appears a more tenable proposition given the priority both give to a united Ireland but Micheál Martin has set his face against any deal with Sinn Féin. Mr Martin has in fact been one of Sinn Féin’s fiercest critics on a range of issues over the past five years and his strategy has enabled Fianna Fáil to fend off its challenger. He is acutely aware how Sinn Féin devoured the SDLP in the North and is determined to avoid the same fate for his party.
Some Fianna Fáil TDs, most notably the former deputy leader Eamon Ó Cuív, favour a coalition with Sinn Féin. If the Dáil arithmetic delivered a majority for the two parties after the next election, the pressure on Mr Martin for a change of direction might grow. But only as a last option after all others had been exhausted.