It’s complicated

As Hilary Clinton learned, winning the popular vote does not necessarily provide the keys to power.

In polling terms Sinn Fein has often touched on joining Fine Gael and Fianna Fail as being one of the big political Parties in the Irish Republic. At around 24% of the vote in the recent election its claim of having a popular mandate being in Government is a stretch, but if it were any other Party it might be more palatable as a coalition partner.

There are three good reasons why that isn’t the case politically, and there is a range of economic issues that Sinn Fein in any way part of Government that make it wholly unsuited:

  • it has a poor record in Government,
  • it has not proven to be a reliable partner in Government,
  • and then there is the IRA;
  • and the economics of the Irish economy will find no solutions in a Chavez-inspired manifesto.

Sin Fein has a poor record in Government

First, its record of Government is poor. True, it hasn’t been in charge of a sovereign Government before, but they have been more or less part of the power-sharing structures in Northern Ireland since 1998, and as one of the two big Parties driving that process since 2007.

In respect of bold or ‘radical’ decisions the record has been one of poor performance and when big challenges arose the response was mostly bold rhetoric and then pass the buck – Welfare Reform post 2010 was returned to Westminster to allow Sinn Fein to blame the Tories and austerity, but more importantly to enable those reforms to happen. The current Finance Minister when last in the Executive wasn’t exactly on top of proper procedure – and the Party no better in his defence.

Sinn Fein has a tendency to confrontation, not competence.

Second, demonstrative confrontation rather than demonstrating competence doesn’t lend itself to being a reliable partner to deliver stable Government. That has been pattern in Northern Ireland where there has been a sequence of Sinn Fein calling crisis, halting the institutions and then negotiating to return with some claim or other of progress. The most recent return looks barely stable. Although the ostensible justification for bringing down the Stormont Administration was around questions over the local version of a national Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme, the decision which emanated from the Felons Club in West Belfast was to bring the institutions down because it was not delivering progress to Republican domination desired by the ‘base’.

Sinn Fein has an elephant in the backroom.

Third, that point about the Felons Club. Probably underlying the deepest concern of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail is the question of ‘who runs Sinn Fein’. During the election references were made to ‘shadowy figures’. The relationship to the IRA, of which Sinn Fein is the political personification, lies in the doctrinaire nature of republican mythology.

Following the Irish Civil War in 1922, Sinn Fein continued to reject the legitimacy of the Irish ‘Free State’, believed itself to the one true Government of Ireland and declared itself ‘abstentionist’, and on that point Eamon de Valera created Fianna Fail as anti-Abstentionist. Sinn Fein disappeared as a political force and the IRA continued with violent outbursts from time to time.

While Sinn Fein has re-emerged in the 1980s as a political force, at first to underscore support for the Maze Hunger Strike, its move to end its abstentionist policy in Ireland was never a rejection of armed struggle. The abstentionist policy remains for Westminster, even though it puts forward candidates and has currently 7 Members of Party who do not take their seats in the House of Commons.

In 2018 an official report based on PSNI and Security Services assessment, confirmed in this past week to the BBC Radio Ulster Nolan Show, stated that the structures of the IRA remained in existence which would mean that Sinn Fein remains symbiotically adjoined to the IRA. The report also said that ‘The Executive’ within these structures (for which many read IRA Army Council) was committed to exclusively peaceful means. That still doesn’t explain why it exists at all. Nor does it answer whether those on this ‘Executive’ might be described under the category of ‘good Republican’ used by Gerry Adams.  A review of the Special Criminal Court is a Sinn Fein manifesto commitment. 

No enthusiasm for Sinn Fein as a coalition partner.

Hardly surprising then that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have each expressed little willingness to give Sinn Fein access to the reins of power as a coalition partner. Sinn Fein has not proved itself competent in decision making in Government, and it is unreliable and prone to fermenting confrontation rather than building trust with its partners. When all is said and done, Sinn Fein decision-making is at best described as ‘opaque’; far from answering to the many of the electorate, there is a sense that it answers only to a very few. It may believe itself (by Republican right) to be the heirs of the first Republic and absolutely, undeniably, the true Government of Ireland, but this is 2020 not 1920.

‘Themselves alone’ doesn’t add up.

The difficulty for Sinn Fein in building a coalition around itself alone to lead and form a ‘left-wing’ Government is that the numbers don’t add up. Sinn Fein may have gained most votes (24.5%) but even after SF transfers (in this STV proportional representation election) largely going to ‘left’ candidates the most seats a coalition of the willing left is 66 – fourteen short of a basic majority.

Small parties need to be careful of any coalition. Some only came into the Dail off the back of SF transfers. Had Sinn Fein stood more candidates in many (multi-member constituency) seats, it would mean fewer gains for some of those smaller parties or independents. Strengthening Sinn Fein as a party of Government means those smaller Parties risk reducing their own appeal at the next election, and there is every good reason for Sinn Fein to assure another election sooner rather than later.

The other point of Sinn Fein finding only 66 seats to be on side for a ‘left’ coalition suggests that despite the hubris the Irish electorate did not broadly vote for a new politics of the left. Despite common roots there is no love lost between Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail; obvious through the election campaign. Without either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, Sinn Fein will find it impossible to be part of a new Irish Government. Sinn Fein is coming to that realisation.

Leo Varadkar encouraged the return of Sinn Fein to Stormont, with his Deputy, Simon Coveney, putting huge effort into talks alongside the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith. There is a thought that the sudden swing into Government by Sinn Fein, when the runes were not promising, centred on Sinn Fein being made aware of the prospect of an imminent election in the Republic. It may seem odd to UK observers that a Government would give Sinn Fein that sort of leg up, but the calculation by Fine Gael may have been that Sinn Fein, in Government in Northern Ireland, would be credible enough to draw votes away from Fianna Fail in the Republics election.

The ‘old boys’ play footsie.

The Fine Gael play to play off Sinn Fein against Fianna Fail would leave Micheal Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fail in question – Martin has been a thoughtful and consistent voice against Sinn Fein and its association with the IRA, morally and politically.

Since the election Varadkar has continued to insist that Fine Gael is prepared for Opposition, placing Fianna Fail under pressure to work with Sinn Fein in coalition. Fianna Fail have refused to engage with Sinn Fein since the election. Given that Sinn Fein is such a poor partner (as above), a Government in which it has a prominent role would ultimately collapse. Having been sanitised by being a Party of Government (in its own head, the Government) Sinn Fein may well cannibalise more than other left Parties – it may well eat into the conservative republican base of Fianna Fail.

No wonder Fine Gael is sitting out the coalition merry-go-round. So far.

If a Government is to be formed the most stable and responsible would be Fianna Fail – which with 38 seats is the largest Party in the Parliament – Fine Gael (35 seats), along with the Greens (12 seats), and perhaps Labour. That would provide a stable coalition. Fine Gael would be unlikely to rest with a confidence and supply arrangement as it had with Fianna Fail in the last Government, as Sinn Fein with more seats would be the official opposition. The options seems to be a coalition including Fianna Fail and Fine Gael or another election. The advantage of a stable Government would be its ability to last a five-year term, long enough to deal with housing where Fine Gael had started to make some progress (too late) and to resolve some of the big items on health. That would clearly take the wind out of Sinn Fein sails and, from the evidence of Corbyn ‘winning’ in 2017, it is tough to sustain momentum for radical change through to a second election.

Talk of a Grand Coalition of Fianna Fail (38 seats), Sinn Fein (37 seats), and Fine Gael (35 seats) might provide a comfortable majority, but is unlikely; it would leave Fine Gael as the junior partner, and Sinn Fein just unreliable as a partner (again, see above).

Meanwhile, business has every right to be worried.

The grown-ups also have to take wider considerations into account beyond their immediate Party interests. While there has been a great deal of focus on the politics of the post-election period rather less has been placed on the other downside of Sinn Fein in power, even in coalition. Unstable Government, an election in forever the offing, isn’t a sure investment bet. Any participation by Sinn Fein would place a question over Ireland as an investment location.

How serious investors might consider the advent of a significant role for Sinn Fein and its Chavez-inspired policies was quickly obvious once the election outcomes became clear. The day after the election results saw millions of Euros wiped off the Irish stock market. Banks and property companies were particularly harshly hit. Sinn Fein is quick to blame ‘bankers’, just because. Rent freezes and abolishing the State’s help to buy scheme were key promises by Sinn Fein.

Other aspects of Sinn Fein rhetoric would concern multinationals. Ireland already faces the unwelcome direction of EU policy towards tax harmonisation – on which Ireland would have a veto, but without the UK no longer has a big player to argue alongside. Corporate tax reform, an international movement that threatens the “Irish double” is also a worry. Corporate tax revenues have soared in Ireland from around €4bn in 2014 to around €11bn in 2019. Even the Irish central Bank has warned this is unsustainable. No wonder an IMF study reported almost two-thirds of Irish FDI is “Phantom”. A 2019 report from Global Britain noted that “The numbers are increasingly materially we beyond the ‘blind eye’ that might initially have been turned.”

The Irish Government is quick to point to GDP growth as a measurement of success, and the colossal debt hangover from the Tiger years has much reduced relative to GDP since. Yet, Ireland’s per capita debt remains higher than Greece. Apple adjusting its accounting procedures in Europe, to run all sales through its Irish office, accounted for a single year’s leap in Irish GDP of 25%!

It’s the economy, stupid.

The economy of the Irish Republic has significant issues down the line, particularly in respect to the indisputable direction of travel on tax policy within the EU. Closer to home, the sudden emergence of Sinn Fein has pricked the bubble of political stability on which Ireland presented itself as a safe place to invest. The Irish stock market bore witness to what investors thought of Sinn Fein’s ‘victory’.

The grown-ups need to step up.

Any level of participation by Sinn Fein in an Irish Government will be inherently unstable, placing a dampener on investment and growth. Another election would resolve little, most likely enabling Sinn Fein to become the largest Party (seats) but only by adsorbing more votes from the ‘left’ and therefore not actually significantly changing the numbers in respect of a coalition of the ‘left’.

The only path to a stable Government in Ireland for the next number of years is where the grown-ups step up and take charge. Whether Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are up to placing the national interest above all else is something we’ll know in the coming weeks.

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