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Sinn Fein at the gate but FF has a cunning plan

Jody Corcoran

Micheal Martin will now do a Big Phil and ask FG voters to 'lend' their vote to keep Sinn Fein out of Government


DEMISE: Mary Lou McDonald’s Sinn Fein party is already on the back foot in this election campaign. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

DEMISE: Mary Lou McDonald’s Sinn Fein party is already on the back foot in this election campaign. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire


DEMISE: Mary Lou McDonald’s Sinn Fein party is already on the back foot in this election campaign. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The outcome of the election can be predicted. Fianna Fail will win the most seats and Fine Gael and Sinn Fein will be a close second and third. It is less easy to predict how many seats each will win, and more difficult again to predict who will be in the next Government. But here goes.

There are political anoraks who think of little else during an election campaign. That is, of how many seats the various parties and Independents will win. As of yet, no such expert has ever predicted the seat numbers accurately in advance. I shall not start here.

The anoraks make their predictions on the basis of published national opinion polls. But this can be misleading. Take the Green Party, for example. In a recent poll the Greens were at 8pc nationally, but 15pc in Dublin, where they have more candidates. So the Greens will still do better than the fickle experts have predicted in this campaign, agog have they all been at the opinion poll ratings of Sinn Fein.

Let us take Sinn Fein. That party has been the talk of this election campaign, the theme of which has been "change". Yet nobody has defined what change is. Is it change from Fine Gael after nine years of right-wing Government, or change from both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail?

I would suggest it is more so change from Fine Gael after nine years than change from both, for the reason that early on Fianna Fail leapfrogged Fine Gael in this campaign and has remained ahead in opinion polls since. This is a key issue in predicting the extent to which voters want change.

At a point during the last election campaign, in 2016, Sinn Fein was on 20pc in the polls. The party is roughly at the same level now and the experts, and indeed the man in the street, will tell you that everything is about to change and change utterly. It is my contention that change is coming, but is dropping slowly.

Sinn Fein is already on the back foot in this campaign, down five sitting TDs, and some of those seats it won't retain. Sinn Fein will pick up others, but calm down, everybody; the Shinners' day has not, and will not come in one fell swoop. So far it has taken 20 years and counting. It is my prediction that Sinn Fein will do well in this election, but will still struggle to win over 20pc of the overall vote.

The issue becomes more complicated when we come to consider the formation of the next Government, which is the object of the exercise. This really does depend on how the seat numbers fall, and nobody has ever correctly predicted in advance how that will work out. But the choice of Governments on offer is relatively simple.

In order of likelihood, the choices are: Fianna Fail, the Greens, Labour (possibly Social Democrats) and a handful of Independents either within or without the Government: In other words, a centre to centre-left Government.

Let us make that more simple: if Fianna Fail wins 60 seats and the Greens and Labour 20 between them, then that will be the new Government, with a buffer of three or so Independents support them based on individual deals. On a good day for each party, such a Government is arguably the most likely. Fianna Fail and the Greens had a good day in the most recent acid test, the local elections. There has never before been a Fianna Fail/Greens/Labour Government. Would such a centre, centre-left Government constitute change for voters after nine years of a right-wing Government? We are innately cautious people. After nine years of Fine Gael, it is entirely possible that the appetite for change will be sated by such an outcome.

Another possible Government is Fine Gael/Sinn Fein. There was a time when the possibility of forming a coalition with Sinn Fein was a blackthorn stick with which to beat the other party. Indeed, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have reached for that stick this time, too. It is my view that such a beating is no longer as effective as it once was, which is not to say it still does not carry some effect, which may also be counter-effective, of course.

However, Sinn Fein is not as popular as it, or many experts, believe it to be in this campaign. The public (and media) attitude towards that party has softened, certainly. There is no doubt about that. But it will still be a big ask for many voters to place a number where they have never placed a number before. The psychological demand behind that should not be underestimated.

To the experts I say, Sinn Fein has just had a series of poor national elections. How quickly you forget. What has changed since then, other than opinion polls which show the party with the same level of support it had at one point during the 2016 campaign? This is not to say that Sinn Fein support will fall back as then from 20pc to 13.8pc of the vote, but in my view it will find it difficult to breach the 20pc barrier in this election, nor will it win the number of seats its still good performance should deliver. Not this time anyway.

In terms of forming the next Government, the issue is not Sinn Fein per se, it is also Fine Gael. The real question of this election is just how badly Fine Gael will do.

Since 2018, I alone have predicted it will do badly. And so it is coming to pass. Indeed, everything - the next Government - will hinge on the answer to that question. In the last election, it won 25.5pc of the vote. It will not match that this time.

So how will Fine Gael form a Government? The campaign has shown the ease with which Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald interact: "Nothing personal", "Leo", "united Ireland" and so on; and Simon Coveney who told us he has spent hours talking housing policy with Eoin O Broin. This is a generational thing, sweet in its own charming way. Bless.

However, even if they were minded to, would Fine Gael and Sinn Fein have the numbers to form a Government? The short answer is no. But throw in "new friends" the Greens and, well then, maybe; and old friends Labour, or both. It is worth recalling, as we reported last year, that Fine Gael has privately polled the public's view on a Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and Labour Government.

But would such a Government represent change? Yes, in terms of the Shinners' involvement. Both the Greens and, with such cover, Labour could live with Sinn Fein in power. But would the family and friends of the late Senator Billy Fox? We will just leave that there.

Here is another key question: would Eamon Ryan and Brendan Howlin really do a deal with Fine Gael after nine years of right-wing Government? I think not.

And all of this is before we even come to consider the question of confidence and supply. Neither has gone away, you know. So to my final and only prediction: the next Taoiseach will be Micheal Martin. But how best for Fianna Fail to achieve that? Do a Big Phil on it, of course. This week we can expect Micheal Martin to ask true blue Fine Gael supporters to lend their vote to keep Sinn Fein out.

Sunday Independent