From top: Delegates dancing at the close of the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall last week; Dan Boyle
A general election wasn’t called this week. It was never likely to be. What we got was product testing by the three larger political groupings, which in some combination or other, will determine the make up of our next government.
The fire drill shenanigans of the past week should be looked on as Pavlovian response measurement of reactions from each respective group of supporters.
The public disdain that each lops onto their competitor parties, is the Irish political equivalent of dog whistling, where supporters hear the well worn tropes of old, but the wider and alternative meanings are meant to be understood.
At this remove these are the possible formations of future government.
1. A continuation of Fine Gael minority government – bolstered by independent/ smaller party support, kept afloat by another confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil;
2. Fianna Fáil swopping places with Fine Gael on which is the lead party of government, and which is the somewhat confident supplier;
3. An FF/FG Grand Coalition. The most feasible in terms of policy alignment, but sadly also the least likely outcome;
4. Sinn Féin coalescing with Fine Gael. This isn’t as fantastic as it might seem, but it remains an unlikely outcome. The recent eyelash fluttering between the two shouldn’t be seen as in any way being a sincere attempt at negotiating with each other. More likely it is about attempts by either to ingratiate their respective support bases; and
5. A FF/SF coalition. This is the most likely alternative to the current arrangement. Not because of any shared attachment to ‘republican’ ideals, nor to any sense of policy coherence. Both parties being malleable on the idea of policy, is the very reason why such an arrangement could work.
Fine Gael talks up Sinn Féin in order to do down Fianna Fáil. Fianna Fáil talks down Sinn Féin in order to protect what it sees as its pre-eminence in challenging and surpassing Fine Gael as the presumed party of government. Sinn Féin talks itself up to encourage its sense of wanting to be part of a government of equals.
We may be entering a period in Irish politics where the three parties perform like the competing empires of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, coupling and decoupling to take on the discarded party at any given time.
The current narrative sees FF and FG ganging up on Sinn Féin, stating that they do not believe it to be a suitable party of government. They say this knowing that they may yet have to consider being in government with Sinn Féin.
The intent is not to shut the door on SF, the hope is that party’s support can be deflated, so that if and when the party does enter government it does so on the weakest possible basis.
This strategy may be having the opposite effect in maximising SF support levels. It may be better to talk up the prospects of Sinn Féin as a party of government.
A different strategy would be to play on Sinn Féin’s inexperience of government. Even in Northern Ireland Sinn Féin has not experienced government. The party has been part of a number of administrations there that haven’t had any responsibility in areas like taxation and welfare policy, areas that are key to the practice of government.
For its part SF needs to factor in the likelihood that being in, or being associated with fully fledged government, will lead to a diminution of its support.
Having successfully heightened its support levels over a relatively short period of time, Sinn Féin will see that support being tested, as and when it enters government.
For my part, being associated with a political party that fishes for votes among the one in four voters who want nothing to do with any of these three parties, I regret this likely consolidation of Irish politics.
I would be confident that Green support will strengthen in this more shallow pool of votes, and that a possibility exists that the party may be sought as a make weight in a minority government. Our inclination would be to continue to want to be part of government. However we should think carefully before deciding to do so.
So should Sinn Féin.
Dan Boyle is a former Green Party TD and Senator. His column appears here every Thursday. Follow Dan on Twitter: @sendboyle