Can the forward march of Sinn Féin be halted? Will the party be left like Peri at the gates of paradise gazing on the promised land but unable to get past the door? Or will it put together a coalition for change that will make a decisive turn away from the established politics of the last few decades?
North and south, the party has dominated opinion polls over the past year, beating the DUP 31% to 23% in May’s local elections in the north and, with a combined nationalist vote of 41%, passing the combined unionist tally of 38%.
In the south, SF carried on where it left off in 2022. It has averaged 33.5% in the 26 major polls published this year and is now at 35%. Nearest rival Fine Gael is, on average, 13 points behind, with Fianna Fáil trundling a further 2.5 points behind FG. If young people come out to vote in numbers on election day, there is a real possibility SF could end up closer to 40%. Its support in the 18-34 age group is a massive 44%, double that of the combined vote for FG and FF.
There is little doubt that SF will emerge as the largest party in next year’s locals and whenever the general election is held but the crucial question remains – who will SF be able to form a coalition government with?
In 2020, when SF failed to put up sufficient candidates, its transfers produced seats across the board for People Before Profit, the Social Democrats, the Green Party and even Labour. That largesse will not be repeated as SF is going full steam ahead for a full candidate selection and seat achievement.
Still, it’s not all bad news for potential SF partners. In 2020, the combined PBP, Soc Dems, Green and Labour vote was 17%, with the Greens in particular doing well on transfers across the board.
The average combined percentage for that group in 2023 has been 14.4% (16.5% if Aontú is added) – a drop but not a catastrophic one. And some PBP seats will not easily be taken away from it.
The Greens will certainly be weaker on transfers and can expect to suffer heavy losses; Labour is stuck in the doldrums, with high-profile TDs such as Brendan Howlin and Seán Sherlock forced to bow out; but the Soc Dems could retain a few of its seats. Still, a lot of good luck will be needed to bring a left coalition group above 50% of the seats.
This leaves the unpalatable option – well, unpalatable for the more orthodox socialists in the ranks – of coalition with FF. The numbers almost certainly will be there but will these parties be able to agree a programme for government that allows SF to bring in the change it wants in housing, health, and economic and taxation policy, and what price would have to be paid to secure FF acquiescence?
Of course, Micheál Martin would have to go, if he hasn’t gone before the election. The venom with which he has attacked SF and SF’s complete lack of trust that he would abide by any agreed programme will make his involvement impossible.
Pearse Doherty will dominate finance and economic policy, so FF could be bought off by being given responsibility for attracting foreign investment and so on.
SF has already made moves to make themselves more acceptable to less venomous FF adherents. Its opposition to the EU has all but been abandoned, with party president Mary Lou McDonald actually declaring that SF’s place is at the heart of the “European project” – although, coyly, she doesn’t explain what that project is. That is a far cry indeed from the strong opposition to the EU articulated in previous years by Gerry Adams.
While the party remains committed to Irish neutrality in principle, its opposition to Nato’s Partnership for Peace and to the EU’s Permanent Structured Co-operation (Pesco) has been significantly watered down, with the party now saying it will judge each proposal on its own merits.
On Palestine, there has been some angry internal dissent because SF dropped the demand for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador.
Compromise is the name of the game but what SF cannot water down is its promise to solve the crises of housing and health. If it fails to do this and make discernible improvements in the first term of government, then it can say goodbye to a second term and goodbye to its ability to resolve the issue of national unity, which underlies its obsession with getting into government north and south of the border.