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Stephen Collins: Fianna Fáil would regret sharing power with Sinn Féin

One of the big lessons of recent history is that SF devours those who do business with it

The declaration by more than half of Fianna Fáil’s TDs that they are willing to consider coalition with Sinn Féin after the next election represents a serious loss of nerve that has profound long-term implications for the party and for Irish politics.

The only conclusion that can be taken from the response of Fianna Fáil TDs to questions from The Irish Times is that they have lost confidence in the current political strategy of Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Since becoming leader of Fianna Fáil in 2011, Martin has based his entire approach on rejecting the aggressive nationalism of Sinn Féin and seeking to purse a policy based on the concept of a shared island. That is in stark contrast to the drive for a Border poll and a united Ireland being pursued by Sinn Féin.

It now appears that a majority of his TDs do not share Martin’s vision for the island’s future and have no problem with Mary Lou McDonald’s demand for a Border poll at the earliest opportunity. That has forced Martin to shift his stance in an effort to shore up his leadership for the remainder of his term as Taoiseach.

That may hold off his internal enemies for now, but it indicates that he will not be leading Fianna Fáil for long after the handover of the taoiseach’s office to Fine Gael in December next year. It also raises serious questions about how long the Government will last after that happens.


Sinn Féin thrives on confrontation and division and has refined its tactics to perfection in both parts of the island. The likelihood of Fianna Fáil being able to cope with such a partner in Coalition is close to zero – particularly as, based on current poll trends, it will be the junior party. It seems that a majority of Fianna Fáil TDs have failed to notice one of the biggest lessons of recent history is that Sinn Féin devours those who do business with it. Just look at the fate of the SDLP, which subordinated its own party interests to the drive for peace and was brutally pushed to the sidelines for its trouble.

Mere posturing

It is possible that some of the Fianna Fáil TDs who are expressing an openness to coalition with Sinn Féin are merely posturing in the hope of attracting transfers. Others may be doing so out of pique at the way they have been treated by Martin, but that is hardly a sound reason for such a fundamental change in position.

Apart from Sinn Féin, the other party that stands to benefit from Fianna Fáil’s loss of confidence is Fine Gael. At the next election it is likely to be the only party with a clear and unequivocal commitment to staying out of government with Sinn Féin, and that will make it an attractive refuge for a significant segment of Fianna Fáil voters.

It will also give Fine Gael an opportunity to win back middle-class voters from the Greens, who made it clear after last year’s election that they have no objection in principle to coalescing with Sinn Féin. On current indications the Labour Party is moving in the same direction.

The polarisation of politics into a battle between Sinn Féin and Fine Gael could lead to either party spending a long time in government or being stranded in opposition for decades. There is a good chance that Sinn Féin will have the upper hand, given the array of potential allies on its left and the willingness of Fianna Fáil to prop it up.

The puzzling question is why Fianna Fáil TDs have now changed tack. After almost a decade out of power they only returned to government last summer in the midst of the Covid emergency. While the party had a bitterly disappointing election result, the Fianna Fáil of old would have relished being in power, however it got there.

Trials of office

It appears that the party’s current crop of TDs have been unnerved by having to cope with the inevitable trials and tribulations of office. Martin’s harsh ministerial sackings added to the mood of despondency and helped create the conditions for soul searching.

The sensible strategy for Fianna Fáil to adopt would be to serve out the full term in office with Fine Gael and prove to the electorate that it could be an essential component of a competent centrist government. Going by opinion polls the two main Government parties could reasonably expect to win about 50 per cent of the vote between them at the next election, with good transfers boosting the number of seats for each.

Fianna Fáil will undoubtedly face a difficult battle, with a populist Sinn Féin promising simplistic solutions to all of the country’s problems but, as the experience of other countries as varied as the United States and France has shown, populists can be defeated by determined mainstream politicians advocating coherent policies.

Instead it appears that Fianna Fáil, which for so much of the country’s history was the dominant political force, has thrown in the towel and is content to be an adjunct to Sinn Féin. That is something for which the party and the country will pay a heavy price.