Sinn Fein ard fheis: Party 'preparing groundwork to be junior partner' in Dublin coalition
Sinn Fein's "steady but not spectacular" growth in the Republic has led the leadership to propose a policy shift on entering a coalition government, a leading academic said last night.
Speaking ahead of the Sinn Fein ard fheis which opens in Dublin today, Professor Jon Tonge of Liverpool University said the party was clearly "toning down its ambitions", although he did not rule out Sinn Fein eventually overtaking Fianna Fail or Fine Gael in the long term.
Sinn Fein's current position is that it will enter a coalition only as the largest party.
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However, an ard chomhairle motion opens the way for it to become a junior partner in a Dublin government.
The resolution from the party's ard chomhairle says a future decision about entering a coalition government with a "progressive republican programme" would be made by a special post-election ard fheis.
Professor Tonge said: "When Caoimhghin O Caolain was elected in 1997 as Sinn Fein's first TD in the south in 40 years, few observers would have believed that Sinn Fein would end up with 23 TDs.
"Yet the party has not been able to overhaul Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
"Its rise has been steady but not spectacular so it is now toning down its ambitions and preparing to accept becoming a junior partner in a future coalition."
Professor Tonge, who has carried out detailed research into Northern Ireland's political system, said it was "a viable project" for Sinn Fein to plan to overhaul the two main parties in the Republic but it was "a good few elections away".
Despite Fianna Fail and Fine Gael saying they won't entertain Sinn Fein as a future coalition partner, the politics academic believed their attitude would change if Dail arithmetic required it. "It will be a case of needs must," he said. "But I do find it difficult to imagine that they would do business with Gerry Adams because of his baggage, alleged or otherwise.
"I think they will be much more open to whoever his anointed successor is."
Mr Adams is set to announce when he will step down as Sinn Fein president tomorrow night.
Most observers believe his departure will be late next year but Professor Tonge said he wouldn't be surprised if he remained leader for longer. "In terms of Gerry Adams stepping aside, I'll believe it when I see it," he said.
"He may want one last crack at an election in the Republic before he goes."
While Sinn Fein strategy in the south was easily discernible, Professor Tonge said it was hard to decipher the party's game-plan across the border.
"There is the chaos theory, that a collapsed Stormont shows that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity, but that hardly delivers for its own grassroots," he said. "Some observers scoff at the idea that a deal could still be done but I certainly wouldn't rule it out.
"Sinn Fein and the DUP were preparing to do one just before Theresa May called the general election."
Professor Tonge said he believed a deal is unlikely to be reached before Christmas but held out the prospect of an agreement around March which would coincide with London "getting tough over MLA salaries and preparing to fold up the Stormont tents".