Stephen Collins: Parties begin coalition moves for next election
Fianna Fáil eager to bury talk of Sinn Féin coalition before election campaign starts
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has consistently rejected the notion of dealing with Sinn Féin and has a clear distaste for the party. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
In the quiet days of the summer recess politicians have a bit of time to ponder the longer term. One of issues in the minds of many this July is the nature of the coalition options they are likely to face after the next election.
Most TDs do not expect that they will have to confront this problem in the immediate future but already the parties seriously interested in power have started manoeuvring for position.
What they say about coalition options now will not only frame the discussions after the next election but could well have a critical influence on the course of the campaign itself.
One crucial factor will be the performance of the smaller parties, especially Labour
The shift in the Sinn Féin position on coalition earlier this year has fuelled speculation in the corridors of Leinster House that a deal for government with Fianna Fáil could be a realistic possibility if the numbers add up after the next election.
Some Fianna Fáil TDs, admittedly a minority, have been talking openly about the desirability of this scenario which they regard as a more likely, and even more congenial, arrangement than a coalition with Fine Gael.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin moved to nip this in the bud with an uncompromising speech last weekend to mark the 100th anniversary of the election of party founder Éamon de Valera as MP for Clare.
Rejecting the notion that the modern Sinn Féin party has any claim on the legacy of de Valera or the other figures who took part in the struggle for independence he said: “The party which today uses the name Sinn Féin has nothing to do with the Sinn Féin which Éamon de Valera triumphantly led to victory. They are a party founded in 1971 which has never ceased in an effort to try to distort history in the service of an illegitimate campaign rejected time and again by the Irish people.”
This firm language is designed to bury talk of a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition well before the next election campaign gets under way.
Martin has consistently rejected the notion of dealing with Sinn Féin and has a clear distaste for the rival Opposition party. He also knows that even the prospect of a coalition with Sinn Féin could do his party serious damage in an election campaign.
It would certainly play into Fine Gael hands if a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition were to become widely accepted as a realistic option. That prospect could shift votes from Fianna Fáil to Fine Gael and have a real bearing on the outcome of the next election.
The suspicion with which Sinn Féin is still regarded by a significant segment of the electorate is often attributed to the party’s economic policies but it probably has far more to do with its historical baggage.
It is often suggested that younger voters, who have no memory of the Troubles, are not bothered by the past but as long as the party leadership insists on justifying the long and bloody Provisional IRA campaign it will remain a factor in current politics.
While the unexpected often happens in politics it looks certain that as long as Micheál Martin is leader of Fianna Fáil the party will not entertain a coalition with Sinn Féin, regardless of the numbers next time around.
Given that Fine Gael has a similar position and the party leadership knows it would be suicidal to do any kind of deal with Sinn Féin it means that the formation of government after the next election could be every bit as difficult as in 2016.
There is a general expectation that if Fianna Fáil manages to win the most seats in the next Dáil then Fine Gael will reciprocate the current confidence-and-supply arrangement. What will happen if Fianna Fáil does not win the biggest number of seats is another question.
A succession of opinion polls showing the two parties swapping first place has fed into a consensus that the outcome will be similar to 2016 with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael tussling for first place.
However, there is nothing inevitable about this. The last election demonstrated how the campaign itself can transform the fortunes of the parties depending on how they respond to the public mood.
One crucial factor will be the performance of the smaller parties, especially Labour. There have been some tentative signs of recovery in the party’s share of the vote in recent polls and if it can build on that and win more than 10 seats it could become relevant to the formation of government again.
The Green Party could also come into the frame. Labour and the Greens have been in government before, and suffered heavily for it, but both are serious about getting into power and implanting their policies. That is in stark contrast to the various Trotskyist factions in the Dáil who have no real interest in power.
If the numbers do not facilitate a coalition involving either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil with smaller parties and Independents the two bigger parties will just have to find a way or governing, whether through an improved confidence-and-supply arrangement or a formal coalition.