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Alex Kane

It's fingers crossed for both DUP and Sinn Fein as Republic's election looms

Alex Kane


Another bad election result for Sinn Fein in Republic would bring Mary Lou McDonald's leadership into question

Another bad election result for Sinn Fein in Republic would bring Mary Lou McDonald's leadership into question

Another bad election result for Sinn Fein in Republic would bring Mary Lou McDonald's leadership into question

From late autumn last year, when it looked increasingly likely that Leo Varadkar was planning an early election, most of us in the commentary business concluded that Sinn Fein would be fairly keen to see the Executive and Assembly rebooted and back in business before that election.

The party has had a bad electoral run in the South since the European and local council elections last summer and also saw a significant dip in support in December's general election here. It was evident, too, having spoken to some of them and read other analysis, that party strategists had acknowledged that an electoral/policy recalibration was required.

At the moment Sinn Fein would hope the election outcome is either a role as a coalition partner in the next Government, or something that could be viewed as the equivalent of the 'confidence and supply' agreement that the DUP negotiated with the Conservatives in 2017. But if you are considering a possible coalition option - and hope to persuade voters you are serious about it - then some evidence that you are prepared to work with an unlikely partner in difficult circumstances is probably no bad thing.

And from Sinn Fein's perspective, no partner is more unlikely than the DUP; so re-establishing power-sharing and indicating a willingness to jointly tackle a mountain of problems makes sense. The speed with which Sinn Fein moved after the Julian Smith/Simon Coveney announcement on January 9 (it didn't even bother to nail down the funding required by the deal) suggests that their overriding political/electoral priority had become coalition government - on both sides of the border.

Varadkar is also very keen to take credit for progress in Northern Ireland. I think it was always a given that a successful negotiation and conclusion would encourage an election immediately afterwards; but the debacle surrounding the RIC commemoration proposals over the past couple of weeks made some sort of distraction inevitable and what better distraction than an election?

However, with two polls indicating a fall of 6% for Fine Gael (behind Fianna Fail and just a couple of points ahead of Sinn Fein) and a 16% plummet in his personal ratings, Varadkar may discover that his perceived success in Northern Ireland doesn't amount to a hill of beans in the eyes of voters.

Ironically, it could be Sinn Fein which would be the primary beneficiary of a continuing fall in Fine Gael support, raising the possibility that it might be required to prop up a Micheal Martin Government in three weeks' time. Would Martin be phoning McDonald if that circumstance arose? Of course he would. Irrespective of what he has said previously about his personal distaste for a coalition involving Sinn Fein, I would be genuinely surprised if he allowed that distaste to prevent him forming an administration and taking the office of Taoiseach. Indeed, the absence of Gerry Adams from the next Dail would probably make it much easier for both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to cut a deal with the party.

Such a deal would raise huge concerns within unionism, which fears that any coalition/propping-up arrangement with Sinn Fein would involve some sort of quid pro quo on Irish unity and an early border poll.

But three things are worth bearing in mind: the first move on a border poll must come from the British end; there isn't much evidence that the Irish political establishment wants the hassle of a protracted unity debate right now; and, at least until the details of the Brexit departure are fully worked out, it is in the interests of any Irish Government to ensure political stability in Northern Ireland through a functioning Assembly. Which means it is unlikely to rattle unionists too much.

Have unionists a preference? Yes, they want a Government which doesn't depend on Sinn Fein support or input.

Both the DUP and UUP have had a fairly fractious relationship with Varadkar since he succeeded Enda Kenny in June 2017, accusing him of using the Brexit situation as a way of playing an updated version of the 'England's misfortune is Ireland's opportunity' strategy. But many of Varadkar's supporters say he didn't have much choice once the DUP cut their deal with the Conservatives shortly afterwards and went into what was described by one commentator as "uber-unionist mode".

They have more time for Martin (although that would evaporate if he did a deal with Sinn Fein, of course), believing that he is in no personal rush for a border poll and doesn't want a 51-49 outcome in favour of unity. That said, Fianna Fail has an ongoing deal with the SDLP and there would be concerns that he might prioritise those interests (particularly with the SDLP in the Executive) rather than unionist fears. The nightmare, obviously, from a unionist perspective would be Martin leading a coalition with Sinn Fein, as well as maintaining a separate arrangement with the SDLP.

Another bad performance for Sinn Fein, particularly on the same sort of scale as last summer's results, would force it into a massive rethink and maybe even a change of leadership. Early polling seems to present a fairly upbeat picture, so it'll be hoping that Fine Gael doesn't recover before February 8, because when the next phase of the Brexit process begins on January 31 - when the UK 'leaves' the EU and the transition process begins in earnest - Sinn Fein needs to be a key political player on both sides of the border if it is to maximise the unity project. Anything less than that will be a huge setback for the party.

Whatever the results and irrespective of who becomes Taoiseach, the fact remains that the relationship between Dublin and Belfast - and between the Irish Government and the NI Executive - needs to be much better than it has been for the last three years (when it was non-existent). The outcome matters to Boris Johnson and the EU negotiators, too, who won't welcome any radical shift in the political dynamics. That said, the fact that both Sinn Fein and the DUP lined up on Monday behind an Assembly motion rejecting Johnson's withdrawal agreement will have been noted with interest in Dublin and Brussels, for it suggests that some sort of subtle realignment of interests is in play.

I don't think anyone is expecting the sort of electoral surprise we saw in Westminster on December 12. In other words, no one is predicting a massive victory for Varadkar or Martin or a hugely significant breakthrough for Sinn Fein. But nobody predicted the catastrophic result for May in 2017, and few predicted the scale of the Johnson victory a few weeks ago.

So, unionists and Sinn Fein will be keeping their fingers crossed - albeit for entirely different outcomes.

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