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Pat Leahy: Be wary when betting on the formation of the next government

There are two groups who seem most certain of Sinn Féin's coming ascendancy

I am not by habit a gambling man. But even if I was, I would be wary about betting on the next general election. Although there is a widespread assumption in political circles and elsewhere that Sinn Féin will be the largest party and lead the next government, there are reasons to doubt the certitude of many of the current predictions.

Just as you could hardly meet anyone in Leinster House who doesn’t believe that Sinn Féin will lead the next government, so media observers seem to be similarly united in their analysis: it’s Mary Lou for Taoiseach, lads.

The assumption is near ubiquitous. Last weekend one of the more sober columnists in the Sunday Times remarked with certainty that the combination of stagnant wages and rising housing costs which have left younger people worse off than their parents would make McDonald the next Taoiseach. Other writers have suggested much the same, focussing especially on the housing issue.

It's easy see why the bookies and everyone else can't see beyond McDonald making history

In the Independent, once the unrelenting hammer of the Shinners, one observed it may be a question of “when rather than if Sinn Féin lead the next government”.


There are two groups of people who seem most certain of the coming Sinn Féin ascendancy. One is the party’s partisan army of supporters; the other is those who fear it most. But just as wishful thinking doesn’t qualify as analysis, neither does catastrophising.

There are (at least) three very good reasons to expect Sinn Féin to win the next election and Mary Lou to become Taoiseach. But there are also good reasons (three again, I’m afraid) to doubt the inevitability of that conclusion.

Powerful message

Firstly, Sinn Féin will seek again at the next election to be the party offering “change” – and that is a powerful message, perhaps the most powerful of the modern age. Nobody is better placed to carry it.

On the issue that will likely dominate politics for the foreseeable future – housing – Sinn Féin has a public profile, a respected frontman and a simple and pungent (if largely unexamined) message: build more public housing.

Thirdly, the party is perfectly poised to attack the Government on the inevitable readjustment that awaits in the public finances once the extraordinary expansion of public spending due to Covid begins to be rolled back. It won’t be long before the coalition is being accused of implementing austerity.

So it’s easy see why the bookies and everyone else can’t see beyond McDonald making history.

But there are also reasons to believe that Sinn Féin will not necessarily come home at a canter, that the party won’t necessarily have things its own way. In politics you rarely have things your own way for long.

The Government could self-destruct of course – and there are those in Fianna Fáil who would be willing to risk it, especially if their poll numbers continue to flounder

For a start, the party’s support has plateaued since the last election. Now, don’t get me wrong – it has plateaued at a high level. Sinn Féin’s average rating across 10 opinion polls since the start of this year is 28.5 per cent; but Fine Gael’s is 28 per cent.

To make government inevitable Sinn Féin needs to add a lot more seats in the next Dáil. Some constituencies are low-hanging fruit where the party will almost certainly win a seat. But in a lot of others it will have to win a second seat, and that’s a lot harder.

Though you might not think it, Government support is not holding up too badly. There is a focus on Fianna Fáil’s weak ratings, but while Fianna Fáil has fallen since the election, Fine Gael has risen. The aggregate Government support as judged by the combined averages of all polls this year is 46 per cent; at the election it was 53 per cent. By the standards of these things, that’s not too bad. It’s certainly not a rout.


Secondly, while many people are drawn to Sinn Féin’s populist, left-wing economic message – as the party’s housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin describes it – there is also likely to be a reaction to it.

The Sinn Féin manifesto was unashamedly redistributionist at the last general election, and many voters were enthusiastic at the prospect. But those from whom wealth and income are to be redistributed – those with some wealth, business owners, those with a private pension – may be less enthusiastic.

Everyone is in favour of solutions to the housing issue, but I wonder how happy the voters of, say, Dublin Bay South, might be with solutions that threaten the value of their homes?

A polarised politics might help Sinn Féin in some respects; but it also heightens the fear of a Sinn Féin government among some people. In some respects the structure of Irish politics is certainly changing, but bear in mind the electorate has been electing mushily centrist coalitions for quite a long time.

Yet the biggest reason I would advance for caution in assuming inevitable Sinn Féin hegemony is simpler: the next election is too far away to have any idea in what context it is likely to be fought.

The Government could self-destruct of course – and there are those in Fianna Fáil who would be willing to risk it, especially if their poll numbers continue to flounder – but the best assumption to make is that everybody will act rationally in their own interests. If that is what happens then the Government will last until 2024 or 2025. Who knows what the world looks like then?

In 2017 – as far away from now as 2025 is – Enda Kenny was still leader of Fine Gael and the Eighth Amendment was still in place. I distinctly recall reading many articles about the inevitability of 10 years of Theresa May in Downing Street

Maybe things won’t have changed much by 2025; but I doubt it. Irish politics is volatile, and Irish voters are fickle.

So, punters, hold on to your money for a bit.