Fascinating manoeuvring going on in the Republic at the weekend. There’s been a lot of press speculation about the challenge an enlarged Sinn Féin representation in Dail Eireann will present to the two main parties.
Some SF TDs may struggle to hold on in places like Laois where boundary changes will force a defence of two seats, but the party’s single minded investment in the south (with accompanying disinvestment in NI), means there should be compensating gains.
With a Labour revival still looking unlikely under Brendan Howlin, a three-way (FG/FF/SF) scramble for Independent seats in the next election is on the cards. Unless there’s a radical break from current polling patterns (which can’t be discounted), SF could be king makers.
Sinn Féin’s plan was always to get in and devour Labour whilst pivoting towards their next target, Fianna Fáil. But the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has proven to be far from a cooperative victim.
After enduring a wafer thin advantage over SF for five years last year saw him doubling his Dail representation, and pushing significantly ahead of Sinn Féin. Martin has skillfully (and consistently) responded public events in ways that define certain key differences between the two parties.
Yesterday in the Sunday Independent, he responded to speculation that his party and SF would form the next government
Let’s put this Sinn Fein coalition nonsense to bed so more time can be spent discussing solutions to the rising emergencies in housing, homelessness, health services and Brexit planning. There is still a two-tiered recovery, which is still being ignored by government.
Fianna Fail’s established policy on Sinn Fein is that it is unfit for government in Dublin and we will oppose any and all efforts by them to get into government.
And for those who say “ah sure ,why should we believe you?” the answer is equally clear – Fianna Fail is the only party in the current Dail which was true to its pre-election statements on government formation.
While others changed their position in a most cynical way, we kept to a policy which we had been told in hundreds of interviews and columns wouldn’t be honoured.
I won’t delay you with reference to the litany of fruitless speculation that there could only be a grand FG/FF coalition after last year’s stalemated result. Martin has been a careful and cautious leader, sometimes to the frustration of many of his party colleagues.
Fianna Fáil has traditionally been a red meat sort of party. It likes its beef red and rare. But for his reputation as a softy, Martin has never pulled punches regarding Sinn Féin. He goes on:
We differ with Sinn Fein profoundly on many issues but particularly on economic and business policies. And as far as more fundamental matters go, it does not adhere to many of the most basic principles of democratic republicanism which are a prerequisite to any party being in government.
I have compared its behaviour in the past to that of a cult and I see no reason to change this assessment. In the 20 years since the last ceasefires, Sinn Fein has a 100pc record in putting the interests of the Provisionals’ movement ahead of the interests of the State.
In relation to Europe, Sinn Fein is our most consistently anti-EU party, which has campaigned against every single treaty, especially those which have been central to economic growth here.
When under pressure about crimes committed, Sinn Fein calls for people to “bring what they know to the authorities” – but no one ever comes forward.
People remain in Sinn Fein in spite of knowing the identities of people who committed repugnant crimes well after the Good Friday Agreement.
We had the grotesque reality of kangaroo courts being used to deal with child sex abuse cases – something which Sinn Fein leaders defended as they believed it was caused by distrust of the State.
So, quite frankly, we don’t think government is a place for a party which puts loyalty to its own movement first, which actively justifies appalling crimes committed and which has policies which could permanently destroy much of the economy and marginalise Ireland internationally.
That sound you can hear is one of a very heavy door slamming in the face of Sinn Féin. And it is one that should give the adventurist leadership of Fine Gael serious pause for thought. Not least in the way the fate of Northern Ireland’s democracy has been panning out.
Sinn Fein’s behaviour in Belfast shows that its only skill is in bringing down governments, not in using them to work on behalf of all people.
He pauses briefly to raise a fundamental issue for southern voters, the rather vexed and vexing matter of security…
The Northern Executive is not the government of a sovereign republic and there are direct limits on what any one party or the Executive and Assembly can do. A striking one is that access to security information is limited.
These limits do not and cannot apply to a government nominated by the Oireachtas.
The next time another Provisional IRA crisis emerges, such as those concerning sex abuse, punishment beatings or the murder of an innocent man sitting in a pub, how can the unreformed Sinn Fein be given a role in the response of our forces of law and order?
And finally, he highlights the sort of indolence that can arise from serial abstentionism…
We’ve seen in recent years, when either Dublin or London steps back from the North, or takes sides on the part of one or more parties, things break down.
Sinn Fein has had opportunities for more than nine months now to return to government in Stormont and it has not done so, even though Ireland faces its biggest challenge ever with Brexit.
It even rejected the latest attempt by the DUP to get talks back on track without giving it any consideration.
Sinn Fein has stood back while the working people in Northern Ireland are being deprived of public services because of the lack of any ministers being in place.
It has also chosen not to participate in Westminster despite having seven members elected. They have decided to wash their hands of challenging a potential hard Brexit by the Tories. This is in stark contrast to the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales.
This is in a context where SF (belatedly learning from their abstention from coalition talks last time) is already planning how to internally manage their passage into government next time out. However, they may find they’re now a tad late in their timing.
In slamming the door so hard on SF, Martin is not isolated. In contrast to the government party’s unequivocal support, his spokesman on Agriculture and Food, and on Community Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív has been unequivocal regarding blame for the northern breakdown:
Movement is needed to re-establish the Executive. SF are playing political games with the language question @fiannafailparty
— Éamon Ó Cuív (@eamonocuiv) September 2, 2017
Is it really feasible that if FF has been so emphatic in ruling out a partnership with Sinn Fein – particularly on grounds of law, order and security which are so close to the heart of many Fine Gael voters – that Mr Varadkar could sell even a supply and confidence deal with Sinn Fein to his own base?
There’s potentially a long way to go. The Taoiseach has had a good start and has tried to align himself with new popular liberal figures around the world. But he will be cognisant of the treatment Mrs May got for going back to the country too soon after the last election.
There are most of another four years still left on the clock, and the short term economic fundamentals are better than expected. Time is on his side, for now. But his policy of demanding a stand alone Acht na Gaeilge looks and feels to some suspiciously like a pre election understanding with SF.
That would be a hard sell to his FG base and a decidedly high price for SF to pay for its long promised (and long awaited) entry into southern power. With Gerry Adams’ 70th birthday coming up next autumn, time is not as plentiful for the SF leader as it was to keep up the waiting game.
And of course, the young Taoiseach may have developed other ideas by then.