Sinn Fein's continued rise means the other parties should ignore them at their peril
Sinn Fein's weekend conference of elected representatives contemplated coalition options. The outcome, as always, was ambiguity. If you want to believe they'll radicalise politics inside government or adopt a two election growth strategy in opposition, they simultaneously promote both possibilities. They maintain they aren't a protest party, but a party of government. Either way, they are blessed by being underestimated by opponents.
Establishment figures are consistently complacent about electoral threats Sinn Fein pose. They cite how they underperform in electoral contests. They dismiss European and local elections as incompatible with general elections, because economic policies will prevail. Such casual wishful thinking suits Sinn Fein fine.
Only a fool would dismiss the notion that Sinn Fein were the real winners in last month's poll. They selected three unknown Euro candidates: Monaghan councillor Matt Carthy; Liadh Ni Riada; and Lynn Boylan.
All three had one thing in common – most people had never heard of them previously. Yet Sinn Fein's brand was enough to secure almost 20pc of votes, with 23.6pc in Dublin.
Their local election performance was even more impressive. Having won 54 seats in 2004, 53 seats in 2009, to win 158 seats was awesome – doubling their vote and tripling their seat numbers. In Dublin, their 34 councillors, elected on 19.9pc of the vote, became the largest party.
Sinn Fein is the third largest, fastest growing party, swapping places with Labour on a ratio of 15pc to 7pc, having held precisely the opposite figures previously. Their performance in both by-elections of Dublin West and Longford Westmeath leaves them realistically placed to gain a deputy in each constituency the next time.
Coupled with 24pc of the vote and 105 councillors in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein gains serious traction with the electorate. If these results were replicated into the next Dail, they stand to win 27 seats (an increase of 13). Ignore them at your peril.
Despite Gerry Adams spending four days in an Antrim police cell facing questions about the murder of Jean McConville, voters seem unperturbed. An Irish Independent opinion poll since May's elections shows Sinn Fein rating at 26pc, compared to both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael's 20pc.
The popularity of the peace process and historic injustice towards the Catholic minority in the North's 'Orange state' has fuelled an electoral waiver to Sinn Fein amongst many younger voters. If opponents think reminders of the past will prevent their onward march, they are sadly mistaken.
This surge in support means greater scrutiny of their economic policies. Specifically their taxation proposals are coming under the microscope. Headline promises are to abolish the Local Property Tax and to exempt almost 296,000 workers from the Universal Social Charge for earnings under €17,542.
Their wealth tax proposal amounts to a 1pc annual charge on net wealth above €1m, excluding liabilities and 20pc of the family home. A third top rate of income tax at 48pc for earnings above €100,000 will mean marginal tax rates of 59pc in 62pc for employed and self-employed. Populist trinkets such as cutting senior politicians/civil servants pay, free universal health care, ameliorating water charges, creating 100,000 new jobs through National Pension Reserve Fund investments and opposition to third level education fees cumulatively detract from their overall fiscal credibility on costings.
Gerry Adams's leadership is in no doubt. He has led the party as president since 1983 and is an iconic figure inside the republican movement. He facilitates a triumvirate leadership with Martin McGuinness in the six counties and Mary Lou McDonald down south. This could mean Sinn Fein in Cabinet, while he remains as a TD on the outside.
The prospect of power in both jurisdictions during the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016 is tantalising for them. They maintain that the terms of a programme for government are a determining factor on any coalition deal.
The intriguing irony of this strategy is the impact it will have on Fine Gael and Fianna Fail as they face Sinn Fein holding the balance of power, along with independents. On local councils, what happened? In the county councils of Tipperary, Kerry, Galway, Louth and Offaly they came together with a pact to exclude Sinn Fein. In other parts of Dublin, Clare and Cork, an all-party arrangement was entered into. Political pragmatism forces expediency in terms of matrimony with your least bad enemy.
Many months ago, I predicted the outcome of the next election would be a grand coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
It now looks like Fianna Fail will determine which of their foes, Fine Gael or Sinn Fein, they will seek to exclude, as FF won't have anywhere near the requisite 80 seats. This suits Sinn Fein's strategy perfectly – to grow even further in opposition. Therefore, the immediate impact of the Sinn Fein surge is not likely to impel it into office, rather act as both a coalition catalyst for Kenny and Martin and a rotating Taoiseach.