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Big role awaits Sinn Fein, but not in power

Gerry Adams did his best last week to keep alive the prospect of a 'red' government after the General Election. No sooner had Eamon Gilmore ruled out a coalition with Sinn Fein than Adams was talking about his willingness to do a deal with Labour.

In fairness, Gilmore left open a chink of light in talking about the mathematical impossibility of a deal between the two parties. But he eventually got to the core of the issue -- as Enda Kenny did almost 12 months ago -- by saying there was no agreement on economic policy.

No matter how hard the Sinn Fein president talks up the prospect of power, his party won't be part of the next government for one simple reason: the economy.

Sinn Fein's economic prescription differs from the other parties. Its policies are those of a party of protest -- a party of opposition. They show no concession to the realities of running an economy that is out of cash and in hock to the IMF and the ECB.

"Our alternative says 'no' to IMF interference, 'no' to EU interference and 'tough luck' to the bondholders," is the mantra from Pearse Doherty, whose success in the Donegal South West by-election led to his appointment as Sinn Fein's finance spokesperson.

Doherty may be correct about renegotiating the bank bailout but his contributions seriously downplay the scale of the problems in the public finances. With Sinn Fein in government, the IMF/ECB bailout for running the economy would cease.

The party's alternative to closing the gap between national income and expenditure is old-fashioned tax-and-spend economics. Doherty said so on budget day: "If you look at the public finances, it is apparent that we have less of a spending problem and more of a tax-raising and retention problem."

Sinn Fein has moderated its economic policies. It doesn't mention plans for a 'super tax' anymore or the desire to minimise the role of the private sector. But while the language is less strident, the impact is similar. In the Sinn Fein world, income tax rates would increase with the focus on households with total income of €100,000 or more.

The party also favours a wealth tax and wants to hit property owners hard. But cynically they would exclude agricultural land from this taxation in what must be a concession to their rural support base in Kerry, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. There would also be hikes in the corporation tax rate. The party is also rigidly opposed to the sale of any state assets.

Over the last five years the Irish economy has been wrecked by the bankers, their developer friends and Fianna Fail. It does not need to be made worse by Sinn Fein policies that kill enterprise and frighten off international investment.

For many voters -- and plenty of disgruntled Fianna Fail supporters from 2007 -- Adams's party is a suitable home to register protest. The results of the Donegal South West by-election also suggest Sinn Fein won't be so transfer-resistant in the national contest. Pearse Doherty received nearly twice as many transfers from Labour as the Fine Gael candidate -- a pattern that will most likely be repeated in other constituencies.

Recent analysis by TCD political scientist Michael Gallagher showed that with 10 per cent of the first preference vote, Sinn Fein could win between 15 and 19 seats. A handsome increase on the four seats won in 2007. And it could be higher. Opinion polls after the IMF bailout and December Budget saw Sinn Fein's support jump to 15 per cent. If that vote was achieved on election day there would be well over 20 Sinn Fein TDs arriving in Leinster House.

Speculation about a 'red' government is based on big gains, not just for Labour and Sinn Fein, but also a medley of left groups, including People Before Profit and Joe Higgins's Socialist Party.

Given the country's economic position it does not need a hotchpotch coalition squabbling at every turn. Stability must define the next government. Eamon Gilmore didn't need to mention parliamentary arithmetic last week in relation to a potential Sinn Fein coalition deal. The only arithmetic is of an economic variety. It should have been on the tip of Gilmore's tongue.

Pearse Doherty is likely to be one of the star performers in the next Dail. But he will play that role from the opposition benches.

Sunday Independent