Alex Kane: Why Sinn Féin would prefer to form a coalition government rather than take outright power in the Dáil

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

With Sinn Féin topping the polls, Mary Lou McDonald looks set to become Taoiseach but a coalition arrangement with Fianna Fáil could be an acceptable route to power
With Sinn Féin topping the polls, Mary Lou McDonald looks set to become Taoiseach but a coalition arrangement with Fianna Fáil could be an acceptable route to power

Micheál Martin was making no bones about it. Fianna Fáil would go into opposition rather than go into any government with Sinn Féin or seek its support to stay in government after a general election. “We would be happy to negotiate after the election... but that will not be with Sinn Féin,” he said.

Mind you, he made those comments on May 8 2007, and he and the rest of his party leadership team have passed a lot of water under a lot of bridges since then. As it turned out Fianna Fáil didn’t need any support from SF (four seats and 6.9 per cent) because Bertie Ahern was able to cobble together a coalition with the Greens, Progressive Democrats and four independent TDs.

Quite apart from anything else I don’t think Ahern or his party was in the right frame of mind to share power with Gerry Adams at that point. Indeed, I don’t think any party in the Dáil would have been prepared to share power with Adams. For one thing, he was still viewed as a ‘northern’ politician and, for another, I think there were concerns that SF in an executive with the DUP in Belfast (which had happened on May 8, the day of Martin’s comments), as well as in coalition in Dublin, would be a spooking too far for the DUP particularly and unionism generally.

Circumstances today are very different. SF is the largest party in Northern Ireland, with dibs on the role of First Minister. It is also the largest party in the south, with every likelihood that it will get first go at forming a government with itself as the lead party. Gerry Adams has been replaced by Mary Lou McDonald, who seems much more ‘acceptable’ to the south’s political/electoral establishment than her predecessor. Crucially, a recent opinion poll has suggested that a SF/FF coalition would be acceptable to increasing numbers within both parties.

So, how likely is it to happen? McDonald and Martin (assuming he leads his party into the election) are playing the game exactly as you would expect them to play it. They won’t dwell too much on the possibility of requiring a post-election deal – that could deter existing and potential voters for both parties – but nor are they putting up much of an effort into kicking the idea into touch. In other words, they are weighing up the options and considering whether a cohabitation would be possible.

Back-room strategists will be examining each other’s policies, statements, speeches and nuances in detail; not simply to deconstruct them, but also to see if there are enough points of agreement to make a coalition work to both their advantages. My own sense – and it’s mostly based on how it plays the game up here – is that SF would actually quite like the cover of a coalition partner or partners.

It has no direct experience of being solely responsible for a programme for government in any part of Ireland; and it will know that three of four ministers in an NI executive (which has been mothballed more often than it has functioned) would be very different from providing an entire government in the south.

There’s another reason it would quite like a coalition. I’m pretty sure SF knows that a border poll is unlikely before the end of the decade; but on the basis that it needs to be seen to be doing something on the unity project I think it’s likely Taoiseach McDonald (if, indeed, she finds herself in that role) would want clarity from both the UK and Irish governments on the terms and conditions under which such a poll would be called. A coalition involving both SF and FF is much more likely to get concrete terms and conditions than SF in government by itself (where it might even struggle to get legislation through the Dáil).

Something else which might prove very useful over the next few years is a Labour government, along with a Labour Secretary of State in the NIO. The Conservatives have had no interest in addressing the border poll terms and conditions issue, but Labour might be tempted; especially if there is push from an Irish government which includes both SF and FF. Unless there is a dramatic improvement in unionist votes, seat numbers and overall percentages in the next three years or so I think the pressure to set out the terms and conditions will become unbearable.

Ironically, a SF/FF coalition might be the very thing which would force unionism to get its act together and acknowledge that beating itself up is unlikely to yield the sort of results and advantages which might make it harder for Labour to cut some sort of arrangement with an Irish government. The present figures are clear: SF is doing well at assembly, council and Westminster elections in NI, but the overall nationalist vote is still shy of the 50 per cent-plus-one threshold required to deliver a united Ireland.

That said, unionists cannot take it for granted that the non-unionist/non-nationalist ‘others’ can be banked on their side and cited as a good enough reason not to settle the terms and conditions for a border poll. Nobody can say with any certainty what is ‘likely’ (the term used in the GFA) to happen in a border poll and that lack of certainty may, in the absence of a growing vote for unionist parties in elections, become the determining factor if UK and Irish governments were to open a conversation on the subject in 2027, for instance.