Brian Feeney: Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition would be positive move for northern nationalists

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Could Micheál Martin's Fianna Fáil enter into a coalition government with Sinn Féin?
Could Micheál Martin's Fianna Fáil enter into a coalition government with Sinn Féin?

There was a time when there would have been a common policy on Brexit, between the Irish government and northern nationalist representatives. Any chance of that now?

During his time as SDLP leader John Hume made sure that to all intents and purposes the SDLP acted as the Irish government in the north. Senior figures weren’t allowed to criticise the policy of any party in the south because you never knew when that party would be in government and northern nationalists would need their support.

In times of crisis Hume would be instantly in Dublin for a meeting with the taoiseach to coordinate a response, sometimes arranging for the taoiseach of the day to make a statement expressing the concerns of northern nationalists. There wasn’t always agreement, far from it, but there were no public disputes. A united Irish position was always the goal.

Those days are long gone because the inexorable rise of Sinn Féin has caused a sea change in Irish politics north and south. At the weekend Gerry Kelly speaking at a hunger strike commemoration in Mayo called for all Irish parties to come together to plan to deliver Irish unity. Fat chance. Most southern outlets didn’t even report his speech.

In the past Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael automatically supported the representatives of northern nationalists. Nowadays the representatives of northern nationalists are regarded as a threat to the comfy workings of politics in the south. The current confidence and supply arrangement in the Dáil is quite simply a conspiracy between the two major parties to keep Sinn Féin from acting as the main opposition party. The plan of Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was to hold that line until Fianna Fáil hit around 31-31 per cent in the polls and then pull the plug on Fine Gael. Now that plan looks as if it’s going pear shaped for the new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has got a bounce in the polls and is likely to call an election next spring.

Micheál Martin is a noted ditherer who lacks the nerve to call an election by withdrawing support from Fine Gael, or at least has missed his chance by dithering. It looks now as if he’ll end up in the same position or slightly worse if Varadkar goes to the voters. That has spooked several Fianna Fáil TDs who don’t want to spend the next few years propping up Fine Gael.

There is one obvious solution. On current showing Fianna Fáil could return with say, 50 or so TDs, up from their present 44. That leaves them twenty-odd short of a majority. Recent polling puts Sinn Féin on 26 seats. Together Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin with some Independents could comfortably establish a government. Martin says no. However a growing number of his TDs say yes and are saying yes publicly.

For many in Fianna Fáil facing the choice between years keeping Fine Gael afloat just to keep Sinn Féin out in the cold or dissing Fine Gael and going into government with Sinn Féin as a junior partner is no choice. It’s a no brainer.

The big problem is that to go into coalition with Sinn Féin Fianna Fáil would have to move closer towards the Sinn Féin position on a referendum on Irish unity, on a consultative paper on Irish unity, but more immediately on an agreed Irish response to Brexit.

At present Micheál Martin has his party all over the place on Brexit. It was easy when Enda Kenny was waffling and had no position on anything. It’s a different story now with Varadkar trying to make up for the time Kenny wasted. What will Martin do? Row in behind Varadkar? Devise his own policy while simultaneously supporting Varadkar? A ridiculous position. Or move closer to the Sinn Féin position on special status for the north because in the end whatever it’s called technically or officially the north will have special status.

After all, the British proposals on the Common Travel Area, in effect a Schengen of these islands, is special status in immigration.

One result of a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition next year would be a return to the Irish government and northern nationalists united on policy.