The 2020 general election has the potential to change the direction of Irish politics as much as any since 1918.
Back then, the rise of Sinn Féin obliterated the previously dominant Irish Parliamentary Party. The War of Independence followed, then the Treaty and then the Civil War, which split Sinn Féin into pro- and anti-Treaty sides. The pro-Treaty elements went on to form Cumann na nGaedheal, which evolved into Fine Gael, and the anti-Treaty side later formed the essence of Fianna Fáil. The Sinn Féin party that was left became a marginal force for many decades.
But Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has opened the door for his party to go into coalition with Sinn Féin. Listen to his language in his interview with David McCullagh of RTÉ. “I'm a democrat. I listen to the people... The country must come first... I hope we don’t have a period of instability.”
If Martin opens talks with Sinn Féin, there will be the usual howls about broken promises. During the campaign, he said time and again that he would never share power with Sinn Féin.
It would rank as among the great Irish political U-turns, up there with former Fianna Fáil leader Charlie Haughey going into government with his bitter enemies, the Progressive Democrats, in 1989 and former Labour leader Dick Spring leading his party into government with Fianna Fáil in 1992.
Martin has been a pragmatist throughout his career, who has adapted as circumstances demanded it. He was an opponent of legalising abortion but changed his position in the run-up to the referendum on the Eighth Amendment referendum. He was part of the cabinet that approved domestic water charges in 2009 but then made abolishing them a central plank of his party’s 2016 general election campaign.
Now that a huge number of voters have opted for Sinn Féin to show their desire for a change in the old order, Martin is acknowledging the political reality.
Fianna Fáil‘s preferred option for getting power – a coalition involving Labour and the Greens, and independents – is out because it will not win enough seats to achieve a majority of 80 in the Dáil. Its second option –putting together a viable minority government – is also in jeopardy due to its lower-than-expected seat tally as well. So a coalition with Sinn Féin might be its only route back to Government Buildings after nine years in opposition.
In a public sign of the Sinn Féin surge in his own backyard, Martin was outpolled in his Cork South Central constituency by Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, who topped the poll with over 14,000 votes. Given that Cork voters knew Martin was going for the job of Taoiseach, that makes that result all the more astonishing.
Sinn Féin also got the upper hand over Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in his Dublin West constituency with its candidate Paul Donnelly topping the poll with more than 12,000 votes, against about 8,000 for Varadkar.
Fine Gael sources have already said that the only answer is for Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin to go into coalition. Fine Gael would much prefer to have a chance to rebuild in opposition under Leo Varadkar rather than have to underpin a Fianna Fáil-led minority government with a confidence and supply arrangement.
However, a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition would still be a complicated deal to pull off. For a start, it would need the Greens as well and some independents to reach a majority in the Dáil. It would have to be approved by a majority of Fianna Fáil members at a special party conference, under the party’s rules. It would have to be approved by two-thirds of Green party members. No government will be easily formed by the time of the Dáil‘s scheduled return on February 20.
Sinn Féin is very much open for business, with party leader Mary Lou McDonald saying she is willing to talk to everyone. A Fianna Fáil source told me that the party would win no matter what the outcome was. “If they keep out, they win, if they are brought in they win.”
Not all of Sinn Féin‘s election promises will survive all the coalition negotiations. It wants to abolish local property tax, freeze rents and abolish third-level fees. Fianna Fáil is opposed to all of that. Sinn Féin is completely opposed to a carbon tax, which both Fianna Fáil and the Greens support.
No wonder Martin has been speaking about “incompatibilities” between the two parties’ programmes. However, Fianna Fáil would be able to find some way of giving Sinn Féin something to satisfy their demand for a border poll within five years. A citizens’ assembly on Irish unity, anyone?
One Labour figure who served with the party in the last government told me that Sinn Féin would suffer the same fate. Voters who hoped Labour would deliver radical change will soon find out that it is more complicated than that. Sinn Féin has no experience of government in the “26 counties”.
That is for the future. Sinn Féin believes that it can insist on policies that will keep its core vote on board if it gets into government. It is going to be a very interesting few weeks in Irish politics.