Sinn Féin could be waxing lyrical in office in the new Dáil

Posted By: February 19, 2016

Deaglán de Bréadún. Irish News (Belfast). Monday,  February15,  2016 

IT IS ironic that Northern Ireland and the peace process are hardly getting a mention in the general election campaign south of the border.

Everyone knows how the Good Friday Agreement changed politics in significant ways in the north, but there is little awareness that the pact concluded at Castle Buildings all of 18 years ago was also responsible for a major shift in the political life of the south.

The reason the change in the Republic attracted such limited comment is that it took a lot longer to come about, but the adjustment has been pretty basic all the same. Whereas government and the spoils of office were previously subject to competition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, with Labour ready to provide back-up where required, there is now another serious contender for power in the shape of Sinn Féin.

Gerry Adams and his friends cannot be compared to the Progressive Democrats, who had a walk-on part for a number of years and then disappeared off the scene. Sinn Féin are in for the long haul and, whether people like it or not, look very much like a permanent fixture in southern politics, just as they have become at Stormont.

Elements in the middle classes are appalled at the prospect but even they would mostly agree that the “Shinners” are going to be in government at some stage – and not just on a once-off basis. The immediate issue is, how are they going to perform in the coming vote on February 26 and have they any chance of getting into office on this occasion?

In the last general election five years ago, Sinn Féin went up from five to 14 seats, out of a total Dáil Éireann membership of 166. There was little fuss over their success because most people’s attention was focused on the steep decline of Fianna Fáil, who lost a staggering 51 Dáil deputies as they were routed from office, and the rise of Fine Gael and Labour, who sailed into Government Buildings with a combined total of 113 TDs.

That was then, this is now. Labour conducted a hard-sell drive for votes in the 2011 election and generated very high expectations in the process, but the party failed to live up to the advance rhetoric. The late US politician Mario Cuomo famously remarked that, “You campaign in poetry and you govern in prose”, but you would have to say that the Irish Labour Party campaigned in punk-rock and governed in chamber music.

Having won 37 seats last time, Labour people would regard 20 as a major achievement on this occasion but most observers believe they will do well to come back with a dozen TDs.

Their government partners, Fine Gael, returned with 76 deputies in 2011 and a senior party figure told me they were hoping to win 60 seats this time, whereas others predict the actual figure will not be far above 50.

In a modest gesture of parliamentary reform, total Dáil membership has been reduced by eight seats to 158. When the TDs assemble after the election, one of their number will be elected as Ceann Comhairle or Speaker. Winning the vote for Taoiseach will then require 79 votes and at least five or six more will be needed on a constant basis to run any kind of a stable government.

Disillusionment with the traditional parties means that a small army of independents and TDs from fringe organisations on the right and left will be elected. The more conservative among them will be eager to support a Fine Gael-Labour coalition in return for goodies and concessions of various kinds to their constituencies.

However, if Fine Gael and Labour have, say, 70 seats between them, that will mean recruiting about 15 from the “Independents and Others” category. It’s not a recipe for long-term stability and there has been much speculation that the old Civil War enemies, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, will bury the hatchet at last and join forces in a coalition administration.

That would leave Sinn Féin as the main opposition party and potential leader of an alternative government in the future. Another possibility is that Fianna Fáil could support a minority Fine Gael government from the opposition benches, which would almost certainly mean a second general election in a very short time.

The likelihood is that Adams & Co will have 25 to 30 seats in the new Dáil, probably fewer than Fianna Fáil but still quite significant. Such has been the level of moral condemnation by other parties throughout a welter of recent controversies that they are probably untouchable as government partners for now. That will almost certainly change with the passage of time.

Because they aren’t going away, you know.

:: Deaglán de Bréadún is a Dublin-based journalist and author who previously covered the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement.