The last Irish general election took place a year ago this week. What at the time was a landmark event – a genuinely significant election that marked the toppling of the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael duopoly and confirmed Sinn Féin as the lead opposition party – would in time be relegated to a footnote in the story of a year dominated by one of the greatest crises the State has ever faced.
But while the Covid-19 pandemic has overshadowed all else, and pressed pause on some of the policy debates that ordinarily set the terms of political battle, the transformative effects of that February 2020 election are still quietly working their way through our politics. They are evident every time Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar stand side by side as Taoiseach and Tánaiste, their parties, once sworn enemies, now collegially – at least for the most part – transacting the business of government.
Asked by this newspaper about his position on coalescing with Sinn Féin, Martin said it 'may evolve depending on policy and policy content and how things develop'
It is evident too in the prominence of Sinn Féin, whose position as the party with the largest share of the vote puts it in a pivotal position and keeps attention focused on what many analysts now regard as its inevitable accession to power after the next election.
The two obstacles standing between Sinn Féin and Government Buildings until now have been the ceiling on its electoral support and the refusal of the other large parties to entertain the thought of a coalition. One of those obstacles was overcome at the last election. And the other one is gradually giving way.
Asked by this newspaper about his position on coalescing with Sinn Féin, Martin said it “may evolve depending on policy and policy content and how things develop”. Of the “range of issues” that would make it “difficult” for the parties to do business, he specifically cited the economy, social policy and Sinn Féin’s attitude to the EU. All policy issues that it is within the gift of Mary Lou McDonald’s party to modify, in other words. Notably absent was reference to Sinn Féin’s recent past or its links to the IRA.
If the Fianna Fáil leadership is softening on the idea of a future coalition with Sinn Féin, it's a reflection of shifting views within the party, where a critical mass of senior figures are now open to the idea. It's also driven by political strategy and self-interest, of course. At a local level, many Fianna Fáil TDs or candidates in constituencies where Sinn Féin polls strongly, particularly among the young, see a benefit in making themselves more attractive to the party's transfers.
At a national level, the party is aware that with the next election already shaping up to be a bitter contest that pits Fine Gael against Sinn Féin, with everyone else taking walk-on roles in that larger drama, Fianna Fáil could struggle to make its voice heard unless it leaves its coalition options open and thereby forces itself centre stage.