Monday 17 December 2018

Sinn Fein has lust for power but just can't find a partner

Mary Lou McDonald has a long way to go as she tries to lead her party closer to government

SEEKING POWER: Mary Lou McDonald with Michelle O’Neill after giving her keynote speech at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis last night. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty
SEEKING POWER: Mary Lou McDonald with Michelle O’Neill after giving her keynote speech at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis last night. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Lust is a strange emotion that brings endless potential - but none of the risks of true love.

Over the past few days, Sinn Fein's lust for power both north and south has been evident.

The party leadership amended a motion that would have restricted Mary Lou McDonald's political flirtations to the likes of the Solidarity-People Before Profit alliance.

She knows that the likes of Richard Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy will be of no use to her after the next election. There is zero chance of them actually entering government and running the country.

But Ms McDonald is very interested in the potential for a meaningful relationship with Leo Varadkar or Micheal Martin.

That won't sit well with many of her followers - but their anxieties would be soothed by moving a step closer to being in government north and south.

Before the 2016 general election, Sinn Fein made a tactical error by declaring that it would only take part in a coalition if it was the largest party.

It meant it was immediately discounted once the ballot boxes were opened. The two main parties derided Gerry Adams as somebody who was only interested in carping from the sidelines.

But Ms McDonald is working hard to change that perception and to some extent, it is working.

On several occasions in recent years, we in the media have rang around Fianna Fail TDs to identify "the rump" who were open to talking to Sinn Fein.

It was a recurring story that drove Mr Martin and his senior advisors to the point of distraction. The leader has consistently said Sinn Fein is "a cult".

But he knows the next election could be his last as leader - and voters will question whether he hates Sinn Fein enough to turn down its support if it is the difference being the Taoiseach or a backbencher.

What has changed in recent months is that people are now also analysing the potential for Fine Gael to do a deal with Ms McDonald.

Leo Varadkar says she is like French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Ms McDonald has called him "smarmy". But the juvenile insults couldn't hide the fact that Sinn Fein recently helped Fine Gael in two Seanad by-elections. And in recent weeks the two parties did a once unimaginable deal on legislation relating to the vetting of judges.

It reached the point where party chiefs had to brief TDs on how to reject media questions about "cosying up" to Sinn Fein. So on the surface, Mary Lou McDonald has managed to bring her party in from the sidelines - but that doesn't mean it has stepped fully out of its shadowy past.

Being part of the debate doesn't automatically bring us to the point where Sinn Fein are real contenders for ministerial seats for a number of reason.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail consistently say that Sinn Fein's policies and attitude to politics are not "compatible" with their own views of the world. But is this really the case or a stock answer to hold back the inevitable?

Before Budget 2018, Sinn Fein proposed €2bn in tax hikes, many of which would hit ordinary families. A few other proposals included:

  • A 47pc higher tax rate on income over €100,000, albeit marketed as a surcharge of seven cents in the euro.
  • Abolishing the special 9pc VAT rate on the tourism industry
  • Increasing inheritance tax to 36pc (which would hit families who wish to pass on their homes)
  • Hiking employers' PRSI on salaries over €100,000 by 5.75pc
  • Abolishing property tax at a cost of €445m.

At the Ard Fheis in Belfast this weekend, Pearse Doherty said Sinn Fein "offer economic transformation". However, it's difficult to see how either of the main parties could sign up to a transformation that would be perceived as anti-business.

Fine Gael sources say they would "spell disaster", noting how Gerry Adams championed the Greek model of economic recovery.

"Look at where Greece is now and look at where we are. That's all the evidence you need that Sinn Fein can't be trusted with the economy," said a senior Fine Gael figure.

Likewise, Fianna Fail say Mary Lou McDonald's attitude to business would "instigate a major fiscal crisis".

A basic point of contrast is the establishment of a Rainy Day Fund. Fianna Fail demanded one as part of the confidence and supply arrangement. Fine Gael agreed. But Sinn Fein plans to spend the cash "and at the same time ignore European fiscal rules". "They can't have it both ways," a Fianna Fail source said.

Moving past the economy, there are big differences in the approach to international affairs. Once upon a time that would not be a big deal - but in the era of Brexit and Trump, our place in the world matters more than ever.

There is a widely held view that Sinn Fein has tried to exploit Brexit to bounce the UK into a poll on a united Ireland. The Fianna Fail hierarchy are particularly strong on this point, believing that such a move would prove counterproductive.

Sinn Fein has a long history as a Eurosceptic party. It opposed Ireland joining the European Union in 1973 and has fought against every EU referendum in Ireland since.

And while the party is now extremely vocal on Brexit, it never actually registered with the UK Electoral Commission to campaign during the referendum in 2016.

Despite that recent deal on judges, Fine Gael would find an actual deal on crime next to impossible to explain to its membership.

Just last week, Sinn Fein voted against the retention of the non-jury Special Criminal Courts, leading Charlie Flanagan to question their "true motives". Traditionally Sinn Fein's version of ''law and order'' is more associated with kangaroo courts than the Four Courts.

And then there is the question of whether TDs from the two main parties could actually work with their counterparts in Sinn Fein. While Mary Lou McDonald might slot into the Tanaiste role, what about Doherty in finance or Dessie Ellis in transport?

There would be a grassroots revolt if Leo Varadkar or Micheal Martin even considered signing off on a Sinn Fein justice minister.

Both men would also have to consider the impact of mixing so closely with a party they claim has a toxic culture.

One in eight of Sinn Fein councillors has left the party since 2014 for a variety of reasons, including bullying.

Ms McDonald has always denied there is any bullying culture but time and again stories have found their way into the media. There is also a risk of contamination from incidents such as the Barry McElduff's mocking of the Kingsmill massacre.

Imagine Varadkar or Martin having to stand up in the Dail and face questions about the Sinn Fein leadership's initial reaction to the controversy. Or an even more recent example, when Senator Maire Devine insulted the memory of murdered prison officer Brian Stack. She got a rap on the knuckles.

So while Mary Lou McDonald might lust after power, the journey to a place where her comrades would be acceptable to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail seems far from complete.

Her day may be coming but the strong evidence suggests that we would not be looking at Tanaiste McDonald after the next election.

Sunday Independent

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