Saturday 19 January 2019

Election speculation looks set to shine all summer long

Sinn Fein isn't a new party but under a new leader it is starting to assert authority

Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Eoin O'Malley

In January 1948, Taoiseach Eamon de Valera called an election. Winter elections aren't popular and Dev had a big majority in the Dail. It seemed odd because Fianna Fail was certain to lose seats. His decision was triggered by the rise of a new political party, Clann na Poblachta, under Sean MacBride, the exotic and quixotic former IRA leader.

The Clann had been formed in 1946 and won two by-elections in late 1947. De Valera calculated that even though it might cost seats, a snap election would prevent the Clann from organising party branches, raising money, and finding candidates. It was a risk, but probably one that paid off.

Clann na Poblachta did well - it overtook Labour - but not well enough, and the decision to go immediately into government was probably fatal for the new party.

Micheal Martin can effectively call an election at any time. He's not Dev, but he's a wily and experienced political operator. His new threat comes from Sinn Fein, which isn't a new party, but under a new leader is starting to assert itself as a real competitor.

One poll doesn't make a party, but a couple of recent polls suggest that Sinn Fein may be closing the gap on Fianna Fail. The polls are too few to tell a story, but there are good reasons to think that Mary Lou McDonald (right) might be having an impact on the Sinn Fein vote, and the vote of the other parties it's competing with.

With no history in the 'Armed Struggle', it was suggested McDonald wouldn't be her own woman. She would be at best cautious, or worse, just a puppet for the Belfast Brigade. She might be following orders - I doubt it - but she's not cautious. Already Sinn Fein has taken a stance on abortion, out of step with what many in the party would regard as acceptable. She's effectively announced that the Ard Fheis will be changing policy before it has met.

I was sceptical of the chances of her being able to detoxify the party for anyone over 40. Her middle-class accent and private school education just weren't enough to remove the stain Sinn Fein has associated with violence. In order to get the top job, McDonald spent years shouldering the coffins of dead terrorists. Her modus operandi was to loyally back Gerry Adams no matter what stupid things he said, such as when he argued that the point of Sinn Fein was to "break these [unionist] bastards" and admitted that 'equality' was a Trojan horse in the Sinn Fein strategy to achieve a united Ireland.

McDonald may be more sincere or cleverer. Last week she took the decision to support a government-nominated unionist farmer, Ian Marshall, in the Seanad by-election. She also used the name Londonderry.

Next she might even start saying Northern Ireland. In short, she seems more willing to make gestures that Adams was unwilling to do.

Last week's polls show that Sinn Fein is cleaning up on the left. It is already the main party of the young. Sinn Fein's support is double the combined support for all the other left-wing parties.

Labour is in stasis, making no impact despite its central role in campaigns such as the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Its traditional vote among the urban middle class has almost completely abandoned it.

The other small parties on the left are wholly reliant on individual candidates to return any TDs. They, too, have been eclipsed by Sinn Fein. Though many in these parties claim that Sinn Fein isn't actually left wing, and they have a point when they say it's sectarian, but they will have to deal with the fact that it is likely to be the largest left-wing party the country has ever seen. If they ever want to see a left-led government, Sinn Fein is their best shot. The micro-parties on the left, and Labour is now one of them, don't have anything to sell to their core constituency. They are more out of touch with this country's working class than Donald Trump is with his.

It is Fianna Fail that can make a decision as to whether an early election can put a halt to a possible Sinn Fein surge. Fine Gael won't be too concerned by a rising Sinn Fein. It will seek to frame the next election as one between a party that can be trusted with the economy and parties who will give in to any interest group looking for concessions. As was reported in the Irish Independent last week, Fine Gael TDs have been given the go-ahead to attack Fianna Fail as a party promising everything. If Sinn Fein becomes the main opposition party, it can make the same arguments against it.

Fianna Fail wants the election to be about a government that over-promises and under-delivers. It has some ammunition; the housing market is not improving (if you're trying to buy or rent) and hospitals seem to be as chaotic as ever if the cervical smear test debacle says anything. Fianna Fail might use this year's Budget to push the Government out.

But it has two problems. One is that it will suit Fine Gael. Minority governments have a tendency to go to the country claiming they need a mandate to govern, and getting that mandate. It's got pre-prepared lines of defence.

The second problem is that Sinn Fein can make Fianna Fail's arguments, and can make them better. Sinn Fein has the advantage that it hasn't kept the government in place for two years. Fianna Fail's selling point is that it's a responsible opposition party. That will help keep its support with older voters, but it is being annihilated among the young.

So Martin won't know what to do. Step up attacks on Fine Gael, and be accused of pandering to interests, or maintain the 'responsible party' line and risk irrelevance. He might think that giving Mary Lou McDonald time will help take the sheen off her. He's tried that with Varadkar and it hasn't worked.

Looks like we'll have a summer of election speculation.

Eoin O'Malley is director of the MSc in Public Policy at the School of Law and Government in DCU

Sunday Independent

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