Tuesday 20 August 2019

It's no, nay, never for the 'big two' before an election, but arithmetic will be kingmaker

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams Picture: Mark Condren
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams Picture: Mark Condren
John Downing

John Downing

Robert Mugabe led Zimbabwe for just over three years longer than one Gerard Adams has led Sinn Féin.

Tonight, Gerry Adams, who celebrated his 69th birthday last month, is expected to formally tell us how he will manage his 'long goodbye' to the presidency of his party which he has held for 34 full years. It comes just as Sinn Féin, still eschewing power-sharing north of the Border, has identified a potential pathway to power in the Republic.

Delegates last night endorsed the following motion. "This Ard Fheis reaffirms that any decision regarding Sinn Féin's entry into a coalition government in the 26 counties will be made by a Special Ard Fheis, convened for that purpose, and will be based on the party's ability to secure a progressive, Republican programme for government," the motion to be voted on tonight stated.

In practical terms, it dials down Sinn Féin's absolutist attitude that it would only ever enter government in Dublin as the biggest party. A special Árd Fheis voting on Sinn Féin taking a junior role in government would be a lively affair. But experience teaches us that if the party kingpins want it, they certainly will get it.

Intriguingly, the move puts the spotlight on the 'big two', Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. What, in all political reality, would their attitude be if simple Dáil arithmetic said the path to Government Buildings involved partnership with Sinn Féin?

Yes, both have repeatedly sung the "no, nay, never" refrain in answer to questions about a government deal with Sinn Féin. They have even added a rider about still shunning a post-Gerry Adams Sinn Féin.

But both parties must do that before an election to keep the middle-class vote. What happens after may well be different.

Of the big two, Fine Gael seems more settled in itself in that insistence, being at times even borderline smug. But unless Leo Varadkar can dramatically lift his Fine Gael party above its very poor showing in the last general election, it will have no reason to be smug.

If the parliamentary numbers speak to a Fine Gael-Sinn Féin line-up, then just watch Leo Varadkar and Co line up their best equivocations to make things possible. That is politics.

The question is more immediate and recurring for Fianna Fáil. Micheál Martin has again insisted he will have no truck with Sinn Féin, regardless of who is leader. But a significant minority of Fianna Fáil TDs have refused to rule out some form of government arrangement with Sinn Féin, either a coalition or confidence-and-supply agreement, similar to what they are providing for Fine Gael and Independents in the current Coalition.

Those brave enough to put their names to that piece of realpolitik include John McGuinness, Kevin O'Keeffe, Bobby Aylward, Jackie Cahill, Aindrias Moynihan and John Brassil. We also note, in all fairness, that all of them placed conditions on the circumstances under which they would consider a deal.

We must note the departure of Gerry Adams, while very helpful in providing a deal of political cover for both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, is no cure-all. Fianna Fáil stalwart Willie O'Dea is among a host of politicians from all of the parties to point out that Sinn Féin's "post-war generation" of political stars has never voiced even the mildest dissent when it comes to Gerry Adams's (inset) many controversies.

Irrespective of the controversy, it has toed the Sinn Féin party line.

So, each of us is entitled to ask: What is the big difference between Gerry Adams's Sinn Féin and the party after his departure?

And many of middle Ireland's voters, who have rightly found it hard to shrug off the awfulness of the recent past, and the murderous role of Sinn Féin's one-time military wing, the IRA, will be asking just that question of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil candidates at the next election. They had better ponder their answer well.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section