Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Sinn Féin is not a conventional democratic party – this is undeniable

Michael McDowell: SF must ditch sway of unelected officials and focus on Dublin

That next Saturday’s general election is happening in mid-winter when many people’s finances have yet to recover from the Christmas season, when days are dark and cold, when swathes of the electorate start and end their commute to work in the dark, and spirits are generally low, underlines the folly of those who chose this date.

The public humour on housing, health and the issues of climate change and their personal finances is at a low point in late January. Leo Varadkar passed up any opportunity he had to hold a November election in the afterglow of his Brexit negotiations and before Sinn Féin had a chance to mend their hand by restoring power sharing in Stormont.

Judging by Fine Gael election leaflets and ads, party head office still clings to the vanishing hope that Varadkar, Simon Coveney and the rest of Fine Gael will benefit from being seen to stand up against bullying by Boris Johnson.

Middle Ireland might yet decide to throw in its lot behind Martin or Varadkar to prevent Sinn Féin obtaining a toehold

Indeed, cynics might feel that Varadkar’s description of the UK as a “small country” was intended to provoke a negative response in London to the same end.


Fine Gael foolishly bluffed Fianna Fáil on terms for putting back the election to April or May when, in reality, they held a weak hand.

Sometimes we forget that Fine Gael only got 25 per cent of the vote in the 2016 election, while Fianna Fáil got 24 per cent. Insofar as there has been change in voter intentions since 2016, the change has not been as radical for the two major parties as some commentators portray it.

Going back to the “Single Party Government? No thanks!” poster campaign in 2002, it remains the case that the last week of an election campaign can witness a significant shift by voters keen to prevent what they don’t want.

Voter dissatisfaction

Middle Ireland might yet decide to throw in its lot behind Micheál Martin or, less likely, Varadkar to prevent Sinn Féin from obtaining a toehold in government.

The rise in Sinn Féin support in Monday’s Ipsos MRBI Irish Times poll was counterbalanced by evidence that a coalition involving Sinn Féin is the least acceptable to the greatest number.

Some might ask why the Green Party has not benefited from voter dissatisfaction in the same way as Sinn Féin has apparently done.

There are probably a number of reasons. Whatever you think of Mary Lou McDonald and her colleagues, she appears more determined than Eamon Ryan, who manages to appear a tad passive and perplexed, if concerned.

Sinn Féin could change to become less of a threat to ordinary parliamentary democracy

Maybe we believe we will be forced by EU-agreed climate change targets to make necessary adjustments in our lifestyle and our economy, whoever is in power. The Irish Times poll strongly suggests that rural Ireland is wary of the Greens and their policies.

Whatever the reason, the fire storms in Australia and California have simply failed to fill the Green Party’s sails even among younger voters.

Sinn Féin finds itself in precisely the same position as Nick Clegg in the UK general election debates in 2010. McDonald points in debate to Tweedledum and Tweedledee and hangs their records around their necks just as Clegg did. Facile but effective.

Civil war parties

Some columnists, not least some in this newspaper, seem to view the Sinn Féin surge as a good thing. Insofar as it betokens a possible end to the political duopoly of the civil war parties, that view might be rational.

However, we still face the undeniable reality that Sinn Féin is far from being a conventional democratic party. Its parliamentarians in Leinster House do not meet as a body to make decisions like other parties. Policy positions, spokesman-ships, voting intentions, employment of officials, and party candidacies are all areas in which elected public representatives do not have decisive say.

Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness should reflect on what would befall a Sinn Féin TD who stepped out of line to the extent that he has felt free to do in breaking the party line on coalition with Sinn Féin.

Will this change if Sinn Féin has a good election? The jury is very much out on that question.

Sinn Féin could change to become less of a threat to ordinary parliamentary democracy. It could start by giving its parliamentary party (all of whom will be elected by the people) a real, independent role in our politics.

It could opt to leave its European Parliament group which consists in the main of former communists. It could align itself with western democratic values rather than espousing Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

It could demonstrate that it has turned its back on the situation uncovered by the cash for ash inquiry in Northern Ireland – that its ministers deferred completely to unelected party officials on major matters of policy. It could move its centre of political gravity to Dublin.

Unless Sinn Féin can take these steps, there are eerie echoes of the Weimar republic in the fragmentation and disillusionment so apparent in this week’s poll. Who actually turns out to vote on Saturday is the key imponderable now.