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Tom Kelly

A united Ireland is far from a priority for Sinn Fein voters... if the party overreaches on reunification, their taste of power could be short-lived

Tom Kelly


The electorate was not troubled by SF's past, but it does care deeply about a range of social issues and Mary Lou McDonald's policies are untested, argues Tom Kelly

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Mary Lou McDonald

Mary Lou McDonald

Getty Images

Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar

PA

Mary Lou McDonald

Only the bitter and shortsighted would try to take away from what was a stunning performance by Sinn Fein in the Irish general election. Their victory doesn't threaten Irish democracy. It certainly bears no resemblance to the rise of fascism, or National Socialism, in the 1930s.

Certainly, Sinn Fein are slow learners and late developers when it comes to wholeheartedly embracing democracy. But they are now on an irreversible (and irresistible) path well-trodden by other Irish political parties of previous generations.

Sinn Fein has yet to fully demonstrate the accountability and transparency required of a modern political party. But it will come. It is worth remembering that with power comes responsibility.

Many in Sinn Fein's current leadership are of a post-conflict generation. The Irish electorate can recognise this - even if political pundits can't.

This result has not only surprised political commentators; it has surprised Sinn Fein, too. Writing in this paper on Saturday past, I thought Sinn Fein would do very well but probably fall short of having the numbers to be the official Opposition or the largest party.

They won't be the largest political party with regard to Dail seats, but they have secured the largest percentage of first-preference votes - and by an impressive margin.

They have the numbers to be the official Opposition, or possibly lead a government.

The lure of power is an aphrodisiac which is hard to resist and Sinn Fein has always been about power.

On Saturday past I suggested that if Micheal Martin failed in his objective to form a coalition with his preferred options he would have to revise his attitude to excluding Sinn Fein as a possible government partner.

In effect, he is in a cul de sac. It may not even be in his gift. Certainly, his party colleagues won't want another general election (Fianna Fail like power almost as much as Sinn Fein).

Fianna Fail (the Soldiers of Destiny) regard themselves as the natural party of government, and 10 years in Opposition hasn't dented their enthusiasm.

A grand coalition with Fine Gael is a non-runner - and not just because of the historical antipathy between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Fine Gael has been rejected by the electorate. Unceremoniously chucked out.

Fianna Fail found itself tainted by association through the confidence and supply agreement.

To do a deal with Fine Gael would be a major two fingers to the electorate. Micheal Martin is too canny to allow that to happen. Mary Lou McDonald too.

Cosying up to Sinn Fein won't be much easier than doing a deal with Fine Gael. It will be worse if Sinn Fein has more seats. Fine Gael look as if they will sit out any negotiations. They seem destined to be the Opposition.

Fianna Fail jealously guard the mantle of republicanism. Sinn Fein are corner boys to some in the party.

Others in Fianna Fail take a less moral view. If anything, Micheal Martin is a listener and he will take his time over the options. At a minimum, he will talk to the Sinn Fein president, and she to him. They both will speak to other parties.

A Fianna Fail/Sinn Fein coalition (or its reverse) is, at the time of writing, likely to pass the magical threshold of 80. But, just as Sinn Fein wanted the cover of other political parties, such as the SDLP, in the recently restored Northern Ireland Executive, Fianna Fail will also want a broader coalition, which includes both Labour and the Green Party.

As a footnote to the recent results, the Irish Labour Party seems as dead as Monty Python's infamous parrot and they should open up exploratory talks with the Social Democrats if they want to create a meaningful future for a progressive social democratic party.

As for Sinn Fein, success brings its own problems. While anyone can be overcome with winning an election, Sinn Fein's Dessie Ellis and his team singing Come Out Ye Black And Tans is hardly the image Ms McDonald - a possible Tanaiste, or revolving Taoiseach - wants to portray nationally and internationally.

It is also unlikely to help Anglo-Irish relations as difficult Brexit negotiations continue; nor does it assist in persuading unionists of the inclusiveness of any potential "New" Ireland framed by Sinn Fein.

Many of the new Sinn Fein TDs are unknown and untested. Quite a few never expected to be elected. One even went on holiday for a week during the campaign (a non-refundable gift from her family organised before the poll was called), and others failed to get enough votes to gain council seats a few months ago.

This is very reminiscent of Ukip when it first got a raft of councillors and MEPs elected. A few turned out to be absolute wingnuts and an embarrassment. This could happen to Sinn Fein too.

To their credit, Sinn Fein have many impressive media performers. Matt McCarthy, Eoin O'Brion and Pearse Doherty could easily sit on any front bench. By comparison, their northern counterparts seem pedestrian.

Leo Varadkar, a bit like Churchill post the Second World War, thought he faced a grateful electorate, but in politics eaten bread is soon forgotten. In fact, sticking with the food analogy, people want jam today, not tomorrow. And, by God, has Sinn Fein promised jam with everything.

The real difficulties lie in negotiating a Programme for Government. Sinn Fein policies did not come under much forensic scrutiny during the election; their past did. The electorate was not concerned with Sinn Fein's past; they worried about housing, homelessness, healthcare and the length of their commute to work.

Sinn Fein's wish-list comes at a cost and the Irish electorate have never shown much appetite for higher taxes. Ireland is one of the most successful countries in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) and, if those companies lose interest, then jobs will be affected. Fianna Fail will recoil from anything which doesn't promote enterprise.

Unionists will be nervous about Sinn Fein in the Irish Government, but not overly so, because they have had to share power with Sinn Fein for 20 years. While some are concerned at the sight of a Sinn Fein TD as Minister for Foreign Affairs, they shouldn't, as the safeguard is in the very title. A Sinn Fein Justice Minister is of greater concern.

The odd outcome is that if Sinn Fein do become the government partner of Fianna Fail, giving them a foot in both jurisdictions, so, too, will the SDLP via their partnership with Fianna Fail. It will be interesting to see how this dynamic works.

Change has come to Ireland and Irish politics is now definitely based on a European model. Unity is far from being the priority of the new Sinn Fein voters.

If Sinn Fein overreach on national unity, it could be a very short political honeymoon with a demanding electorate.

Tom Kelly is a political commentator and writer

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