The dramatic shift in Sinn Féin's stance on government participation, floated by Mary Lou McDonald some months ago, was firmed up in various media contributions by Gerry Adams and others around the party's annual "think-in" this week.
When McDonald first indicated the shift last January, many correctly identified it as a potential game-changer in the context of the Republic’s next general election.
In 2016, Sinn Féin said it would not enter government unless it was in a position after the election to be the largest party in any potential coalition. There was never any possibility it was going to be that large, so in the 2016 election Sinn Féin was effectively running for a larger position in opposition rather than any role in government.
Now, however, Sinn Féin is putting itself on the coalition market irrespective of the size of its mandate. Its leaders now say that after the next election Sinn Féin is prepared to be a junior coalition partner. They speak, of course, about how the party ardfheis will have to approve this change in strategy, but if the likes of Adams and McDonald are talking it up then ardfheis approval can be presumed.
What has not changed, however, is the stance of those with whom Sinn Féin might seek to form a coalition.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have ruled it out previously and indeed as the shift in Sinn Féin's stance has become apparent both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have hardened their stance against governing with them.
For both of the larger parties this is more than a mere intensification of the anti-Sinn Féin rhetoric. The prospect of Sinn Féin being in government is likely to be one of the fulcrum issues of the next election.
There are overwhelming short-term political reasons why Fianna Fáil will not promote a coalition with Sinn Féin
With Sinn Féin removing its own block on coalition membership, the risk emerges for Fianna Fáil in particular that middle-ground voters begin to perceive the prospect of that party forming a coalition with Sinn Féin as a real possibility. In the battle for those middle-ground voters, Fine Gael will do its utmost to paint that notion of a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin government as a likely scenario.
That is why Micheál Martin devoted his first major post-vacation outing to again dismissing the notion of a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition. Martin appears particularly concerned about punditry which might give credence to the suggestion of any such Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition.
In an opinion piece in last weekend’s Sunday Independent, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin dismissed media focus on “coalitionology” and again reiterated his party’s opposition to governing with Sinn Féin. His stance is to be believed.
There is no doubt that the prospect of being in government with Sinn Féin is anathema to Martin himself and there are overwhelming political, electoral and long-term strategic reasons why Fianna Fáil would not form a coalition with Sinn Féin after the election.
There are also overwhelming short-term political reasons why it will seek to kill off the notion in the months and potential years before the next general election. To those who might seek to argue that Fianna Fáil would say one thing before the election and do another after the election, Martin can point to the fact that they ruled out going into coalition with Fine Gael in 2016 and stuck with that policy after the election, albeit he facilitated Fine Gael’s return to government as a minority.
The risk to public acceptance of Martin’s strong stance about Fianna Fáil not going into government with Sinn Féin doesn’t come from political pundits, however. It comes from the fact that political reporters have been able to write well-sourced stories about how some on his frontbench would be prepared to enter coalition with Sinn Féin.
The only way Martin can really shut down that speculation is by shutting up those frontbenchers.
One development which could further enhance the perception that if the numbers are right Fianna Fáil might go into a coalition with Sinn Féin – and which would intensify the punditry Martin so dreads – would be a change in Sinn Féin leadership any time soon.
This week we saw the surreal scenario where Adams announced that he would wait until he is re-elected party president for the 34th time at the party’s next ardfheis before he outlined when he would step down from that position. He maintained he was doing so in order to quell media speculation, but of course it has only served to ratchet up the media speculation.
At one level this will raise the focus on Sinn Féin in the months to come. The “when will Gerry go” and who will replace him has a soap opera feel to it which will excite many.
We know how this plot line ends, however: there is no doubt but that McDonald will be the new Sinn Féin leader.