Thursday 13 December 2018

90 years after they split, FF and SF may yet end up back together in government

Micheal Martin and Mairia Cahill
Micheal Martin and Mairia Cahill

Shane Coleman

It was Bismarck who said you should never believe anything in politics until it's been officially denied. That's probably an exaggeration.

But it's still worth keeping in mind when listening to the strident denials from both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein that they could end up in coalition together. The prospect isn't nearly as remote as both parties would have you believe.

There are potential stumbling blocks (more of which later), but government formation is ultimately a numbers game. If Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein are within striking distance of 80 seats in the next Dail, then coalition is a real possibility.

And, based on recent opinion polls, there are very few potential combinations that will even come close to that majority figure.

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael is the obvious one. With FF at 21pc and FG at 19pc in the most recent poll, there's no guarantee the two would have enough TDs between them. Even if they do (and it's hard to imagine that won't be the case despite their current woes), the problems are only beginning. If Fine Gael has more seats, would Fianna Fail, for so long the top dog in Irish politics, be willing to suckle on the hind teat? Hardly.

The same presumably would hold for FG. Having finally, after nine decades, got a taste for being number one, it would surely baulk at the notion of being the junior partner to FF. A rotating Taoiseach might be a possibility if both parties end up with close to the same seat total, but it's all a little messy.

So if that looks a long shot, who else could form a government? The return of FG and Labour would require a Lazarus-style revival of fortunes. Things might change but, as of now, Labour will be doing well to stay in double figures, seats-wise. That also rules out an FF/Labour combination.

There will be a record number of independents, but they'll come from such diverse ideologies that the prospect of enough coming together with any one of FF, FG or SF to form a government seems fanciful.

Which brings us back to Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein. The least unlikely option? It could only happen if Fianna Fail is the bigger party for the same reasons the FF front bench would never agree to play second fiddle to Fine Gael.

But it's actually highly likely that Fianna Fail will have more seats than Sinn Fein after the next general election despite the latter's recent strong poll rating.

The 100-seat cushion Fianna Fail had over Sinn Fein in the recent locals shows the advantages that the former still retains. The past four years has consistently shown us that Fianna Fail performs better in elections than its poll rating, while the reverse is even more true for Sinn Fein. In short, the 22pc Sinn Fein had in the recent opinion poll is a lot softer than Fianna Fail's 21pc, though Dublin clearly remains a massive problem for the latter.

Fianna Fail also has a potential advantage in the leadership stakes. Micheal Martin is the best TV performer of the party leaders by some distance. That could be critical in what is likely to be an incredibly open general election campaign. In contrast, Adams has consistently struggled while debating the economy.

So it's conceivable (though, of course, far, far from certain) that FF could get to 40-plus seats and SF could end up with 30-plus. With the support of independents, it's possible that between them the two parties could get to the magic 80 seats. If that happens, then history suggests it's game on.

That's not to underestimate the problems there would be. There will be people in Sinn Fein bitterly opposed to being the junior partner in a coalition with FF and who advocate staying out of government for another term.

But even allowing for the fact that Sinn Fein tends to play a longer game, there will be others in the party who will take a pragmatic view about being in government with the possibility of six or seven seats at Cabinet. That chance mightn't come around again. And government with Fianna Fail would surely be more palatable to the Republican movement than one with Fine Gael.

Getting agreement on a programme for government would be a huge challenge, particularly given Sinn Fein's taxation policies. But politics is ultimately the art of the possible and nobody in politics is more pragmatic than Sinn Fein or, for that matter, Fianna Fail.

Could it also be fate calling? March 2016, the most likely timing of the next general election, marks exactly 90 years since the Sinn Fein Ard-Fheis where de Valera lost a critical vote on Dail abstention. It resulted in him leaving to set up Fianna Fail.

How ironic if the 90th anniversary saw the two parties coming back together.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of 'The Sunday Show' on Newstalk

Irish Independent

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

Don't Miss