Sinn Féin is the government-in-waiting if it can move beyond populism

For the party to seize power, it must expand its policies and silence lingering doubts

Formidable campaigner: Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Formidable campaigner: Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

In a week of big political events and far-reaching policy decisions, the news most remarked on in Leinster House was the whopping 10-point lead opened up by Sinn Féin over its nearest rivals in The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll.

At 32 per cent, Sinn Féin is now by far the most popular party in the State, and clear favourite to lead the next government. Moreover, the dynamics that have powered its rise – a stuttering government, its highly effective opposition, a public mood for change focused on domestic issues such as housing and health – seem unlikely to dissipate any time soon. They may well intensify. There is not a mood of despair and resignation among Ministers (although it can be detected more than occasionally on the backbenches) but it could develop before too long.

Sinn Féin understands that it has entered a new phase now. Listen closely and you will notice that frontbenchers have begun to insert this into every interview and soundbite – “a Sinn Féin government would ... ” or “under a Sinn Féin government ...” The brilliant BBC documentary currently being aired about the new Labour project under Tony Blair shows how that party faced up to and accomplished precisely that task in the mid-1990s, convincing a sceptical British public that the party was now fit for power. By 1997, new Labour was effectively a government-in-waiting. That is the task now facing Sinn Féin.

It is going at it with gusto. What the party has going for it is not just the proclivity of its opponents to inflict damage on themselves but waves of energy, commitment and conviction. It is a powerful combination. The party has also examined the failures of fellow left-wing populists Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, to translate their pungent opposition into effective government. Though they might hate to admit it, Blair’s new Labour is a better model.

Beyond populism

The party itself describes its political approach as “left populism”. One of the dangers with populism is always that it proposes simple, easy, cost-free answers to difficult problems. The challenge for Sinn Féin is to move beyond the populist sloganeering and outline a sustainable platform for government.

It’s trying. This week, Sinn Féin published its alternative budget, following on a series of documents on housing, social protection and health. To anyone who studied the party’s manifesto at the last election, the budget will be familiar – a plan for more taxes on business and the better-off, and more spending on the less-well-off; a bigger state, raising more taxes, spending more money on public services, welfare and so on. You may or may not like the sound of this, but you can’t say it’s not coherent and consistent.

However, considerable hurdles remain before the party if it is to achieve its goals. Midterm leads never won anyone a general election, and the prospect of a massacre in an election should concentrate minds in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, not just about keeping the Coalition together, but actually making progress on the issues of concern to voters. Easier said than done, of course.

Perhaps the outstanding feature of Irish politics right now is the volatility that marks voter behaviour. There is, I think, a big blob of floating voters, unmoored by loyalty to any party, whose votes are available to all parties on election day. They often move late in a campaign, and they often move in the one direction. Many of them swung behind Sinn Féin last time. They may do so again; but they are open to offers.

Furthermore, the context of the next election campaign is for now entirely unknowable. Will the present Government have made progress, particularly on health and housing? Can it reasonably claim to have made things better for people? And what of the election campaign itself, upon which so much depends?

Online supporters

Mary Lou McDonald is a formidable campaigner, as she demonstrated the last time. But she didn’t demonstrate it in the two campaigns before that. Can she deliver again? Who will her opponents even be? Can the party maintain its rigid discipline, and is this even a good idea? Will its army of online supporters win it votes or turn off the middle ground with ignorant and aggressive behaviour on social media? I’ll tell you the answers in three years.

Sinn Féin also needs to consider what its path to government might be. Let me go out on a limb and predict that the party won’t win an overall majority: so who are the coalition partners? A scatter of the smaller left-wing parties? Independents? Fianna Fáil?

Whoever wants to join Sinn Féin as minority partner in a coalition will have to accept both its major priorities – its left-wing social and economic prospectus, and the united Ireland project.

The latter would be perhaps the greatest policy change that any Irish government has ever conducted. For the first time, Irish unity would become the Dublin government’s core objective, and its diplomatic, political and economic management would all be directed towards this goal. I don’t think people have really appreciated the scale of the change this would entail.

Would Labour, the Greens or the Social Democrats swallow this nationalist imperative? I don’t know. Would Fianna Fáil? Maybe, but maybe not (that’s a whole other column). What about all those middle-ground, floating voters? Many of them, especially the young, are attracted by the potential benefits of a united Ireland. But a reckoning with the costs – financial, economic, social and political – will be part of the discussion too. The views of unionists are hardly irrelevant either, are they?

Sinn Féin is building a political project that is far-reaching in its ambition, thorough in its preparation and ruthless in its execution. The future throbs with potential for it. But it has a long way to go before it reaches its objectives.

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