The political atmosphere in Ireland has continued to heighten and this weekend's annual conference of the governing Fine Gael party has fired the starting pistol on what will undoubtedly be a long election campaign into early next year.
Given the volatile nature of the political landscape after a long period of economic crisis and austerity, and the break-up of old party loyalties, the next election will be one of the most important for decades. A new opinion poll, for the Sunday Business Post/Red C, had the figure for independent candidates still at a staggering 30%. Meanwhile, Fine Gael is on 24%, Sinn Fein 21%, Fianna Fail 18% and the minor Government partner, Labour, at a miserable 7%.
The Fine Gael (FG) conference saw strong attacks on Fianna Fail (FF) and on Sinn Fein (SF) with the deliberate painting of a stark choice for the electorate between FG or SF, essentially a choice between right of center or center left, or the 'phony left' as Minister Leo Varadkar put it in an especially robust attack on SF leader Gerry Adams in which Varadkar accused Adams of having different policies in Northern and Southern Ireland. In fairness, Adams responded in an impressively robust statement, but essentially agreed with the idea that the future choice is now between FG and SF. It benefits both SF, and FG, to have FF to put out of the picture.
Micheal Martin was in Northern Ireland to honor the veteran SDLP politician, Seamus Mallon, who is now a historic figure in terms of the peace process. But there is a danger that Martin himself will become a historic figure. Despite doing relatively well in the opinion polls, at 18%, FF is in danger of being irrelevant in the increasing polarization of SF and FG.
Short on policies, and with almost weekly revelations about the mess that Fianna Fail made of things in the crisis years of 2008-2011, the formerly long dominant party is simply unable to grow and recover. Indeed, so frustrated is FF that they are now lashing out and declaring that, despite all their differences, FG and SF are actually secretly making eyes at each other, as future prospective partners!
This is not as crazy you think. Although both parties appear poles apart and are attacking each other, there is no reason why such a strange coalition could not take place were it absolutely required. After all, FG is in power now with the Labour party, just as FF had once shared power with the Greens, whom they had previously ridiculed.
Also, SF has been offering an increasingly moderate image and has been carefully distancing itself from many of the more shrill policies of the Irish far left. SF will also have learned from the compromises that the Greek movement Syriza had to make last week when confronted by the realities of European politics. Most of all, SF has shown a facility for constructive coalition in Northern Ireland.
However, SF cannot openly entertain the prospect of a coalition with FG for fear of alienating its own voters, and FG is the same, so it is a strange dance of future possibilities. But FF know that talking up the prospect of such a bizarre arrangement can damage the credibility of both parties with their respective party bases, and perhaps get back some frightened middle class voters for itself. Thus we have FF’s Willie O’Dea claiming that ‘the mask has slipped – a vote for Fine Gael is a vote for Sinn Fein and a vote for Sinn Fein is a vote for Fine Gael"
This is a bit of an exaggeration, to say the least, but one can understand the logic. The crucial thing is the maths. In the next Dail, a potential Government needs about 80 seats to form a majority and clearly neither FG, SF nor FF can form a Government on their own. Converting this week’s poll figures into seats would go as follows: FG at 47, Independents and others at 42, SF at 33, FF at 31, Labour at 4 and Greens at 1. If you combine FG and SF, you get the magic 80. Otherwise, a combination of FF and FG would come close to it, but, despite their similarity, this would be an almost impossible coalition to imagine, given the historical differences and utter resistance by the memberships of both parties.
However, there are few other feasible alternatives. FG is still saying publicly that it wishes to continue governing with the Labour Party, but given the latter’s decimation, this would be almost impossible, unless there were other elements in the coalition. And it is difficult to see SF sharing power with Labour, or vice versa. There is an equal antipathy between rival Republican parties FF and SF, of course.
This opens up the possibility of deals with Independents which are impossible to predict and could create serious instability. All the main parties are reluctant to go down that road, and point to the pork barrel politics and endless brinkmanship of when this happened in the past, most recently in propping up Bertie Ahern’s FF.
The final option to examine is a left wing alliance, led by SF and comprising the far left parties and the remnants of the Labour Party. But again the numbers would be well short of the magic 80 and besides, there is growing tension between the far left and SF, which the former see as not being a real left wing party at all but a populist nationalist one. If they are correct in this, and they probably are, then the way is open for an increasingly mainstream SF to enter into an ‘undesirable but necessary’ coalition with FG – ‘in the national interest.’
After all, in 1948, Clann na Poblachta, an Irish Republican party formed a coalition Government with a Fine Gael Party hat was still steeped in the memories of the Irish Civil War – all so that both of them could keep FF out of power.
And, after all, if SF can share power with Paisley’s DUP in the fractious North, then they can share power with anybody. But before then, we have a long way to go before an election early next year, or even sooner, and there will be lots of shadow boxing before a grubby alliance is eventually hammered out between deadly enemies.
In the meantime, various politicians will keep up the relentless attacks on their foes, and on their rivals. But in the case of FG and SF it might be more like one of those heated Tennessee Williams plays where a passionate couple share a dysfunctional house and spend most of their time throwing insults, and even crockery, at each other – only to end up in the final sweaty scene locked in a passionate if rueful embrace. Stranger things have happened!