Why political precedent is no guide to the shape of Ireland’s political future…

One thing I will say for Sinn Fein is that they do sometimes learn from their mistakes. Last time round, they stayed out of the horsetrading for coalition on the rather implausible grounds that they would only negotiate from a position of strength.

Now, they know very well that the political media obsesses about such things far in advance of the following election, but the message going out from Mary Lou is unambiguous this time about wanting to get into government.

It doesn’t mean they will. The decision won’t be Mary Lou’s but instead lies with the intensely private interests of what the party euphemistically calls the Leadership or what the PSNI Chief Constable calls the Army Council of the Provisional IRA.

And they know if they stay out of negotiations they’ll be cast as irrelevant.

The revelation in the Sunday Business Post at the weekend of cordial private correspondence between senior figures in the southern parliamentary party and Fine Gael members of the government sparked a defensive line in her interview with the Irish Times.

Pat Leahy reports:

She said that she expected to talk to both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael about forming a government after the next election, although both parties have repeatedly ruled out any coalition deal with Sinn Féin.

In the plainest statement yet of her party’s impatience for power in Dublin, Ms McDonald said she had no preference between the two rivals, and rejected suggestions that she had been “flirting” with Fine Gael in recent weeks. She also rejected suggestions that Sinn Féin was closer “culturally” to Fianna Fáil.

At the end of the day, parliamentary arithmetic will dictate what’s available post-election. After the 2011 FF meltdown (not to mention the 2016 FG meltdown) that is far less predictable than most southern pol correspondents seem ready to admit.

Switching position on participating in coalitions is just a necessary entry fee for being taking seriously, as well being part of SF’s Mary Lou makeover.

Physical cues of personal warmth between the SF president and the Taoiseach perhaps ought to be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt. As we know from our own experiences of political chuckling in Northern Ireland appearances can be very deceptive.

More tangible is Sinn Féin support for the Government’s Judicial Appointments Bill (insisting on a non-legal majority and a non-legal chair for a new appointment body), in return for bringing forward sentencing guidelines for judges in the near future.

Despite a heavy and consistent line from FG during the Autumn, that Fianna Fail was preparing to jump into bed with Sinn Fein (based on little more than they both had a record of voting down government business), Martin’s opposition is established and clear.

Most mainstream analysis has been based on the historical precedent of FF never being more than one term out of office: judging that the obvious frustration of backbench FFers would overtake the leader in some form and push him into a hasty arrangement.

But we are no longer in a position anywhere where precedent is any kind of a useful guide to future behaviour. That applies as much to Sinn Fein’s pursuit of its unique opportunity as it does to how Fianna Fail pursues its own survival and/or future prosperity.

Martin has used SF’s continuing relationship with the Army Council as a deep firewall between his party and Mary Lou. Culturally, that’s aided by the fact that she’s a privately educated south Dubliner. Or as one FGer was overheard to say recently “she’s one of us”.

No doubt that despite Martin’s early and consistent position on the Referendum, the open defection of a majority of his parliamentary party leaves Fianna Fail damaged. The extent to which that damage can be repaired depends on whether he can restore discipline.

There is virtually no mainstream democracy in Europe (or America) which is not currently in the business of radically re-ordering its political inner life around non-traditional lines. Almost anything can happen. New choices and new combinations are opening.

But sometimes politics is about laying down limitations and the effective provision of choice. This is pretty much how the UK Labour Party bounced back at a point when the government (and a large chunk of its own parliamentary party) thought it was a rusting hulk.

Ireland’s STV PR system means you have to pull off the trick of providing both choice and plausibly convivial combinations.

It’s going to be an interesting autumn.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty