Goodbye to angry and negative Sinn Féin. Hello to positive, constructive, and nice Sinn Féin. Not since Ryanair went from being the big bad airline to the sort of nicest airline in Europe has an organisation gone through such a transformation.
In the wake of its disastrous local and European elections, one of the early messages which seemed to land was the fact that too many people found the party “too negative, too aggressive” in its messaging. This week in the Dáil, we saw the early stages of the fight back: A much softer, sweeter, nicer Sinn Féin on its best behaviour. On Thursday, Pearse Doherty, taking leaders’ questions abandoned his normally agitated tone and instead was all pleasantness and light.
Raising the issue of the need for an online safety commissioner, Doherty emphasised in a most un-Sinn Féin way the need for politicians on all sides to work together: “We all have a responsibility but particularly those of us in these Houses, to take action.
"Some good work has been done. For example, the action plan for online safety made a positive contribution and it is important to acknowledge that. However, there is other important work that needs to be done.
“All of us in this House have suggestions and ideas about what needs to be done. None of them is necessarily wrong and some complement each other.
“We need to work together on this. We have lost far too much time. Will the Tánaiste support either of these options?” he asked of Simon Coveney.
Such was the pleasantness in his tone, he even got Coveney thanking him for his cooperative manner: “I thank the deputy for raising this issue and I appreciate the spirit in which
he has raised it, which represents an effort to get us to respond collectively. Government and opposition have done really good work collectively on some big issues, climate action, housing and other social changes that I am glad to say this country has managed to deliver in recent years. This is another one but it is a very difficult issue to get right.”
It was a long way from the normally highly combative tone and atmosphere Doherty brings to his Thursday outings at leaders’ questions. But it was not an isolated incident.
Waterford TD David Cullinane coughed up an apology to Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl for comments he made about him in the Dáil on Tuesday.
“First, I apologise to the Ceann Comhairle for comments I made yesterday in this chamber. It is appropriate when somebody makes a mistake that he or she apologise directly to you in the chamber and I do so,” he said in a way that made clear that being nice and responsible is the new Sinn Féin way. But just the day before, he was stuck in the old ways.
The Ceann Comhairle wrapped up the time for questions under promised legislation saying that 10 deputies had not been reached in the allotted time.
Cullinane objected by saying: “How many of those are from Sinn Féin? I would say a fair number of them are.”
Ó Fearghaíl responded: “I have not counted them but if the deputy wants to come up here and count them he can.”
Cullinane took umbrage and lashed out: “If the Ceann Comhairle looked straight ahead and not just left and right” — a reference to where Sinn Féin TDs sit relative to the Ceann’s chair.
“I take grave exception, I take grave exception to the deputy’s comment,” said a clearly displeased Ó Fearghaíl. “I take exception to sitting here week after week, day after day, without speaking. The Ceann Comhairle can take whatever exception he wants,” the Waterford TD said sharply.
But Sinn Féin was not the only party to change its tone noticeably in the Dáil. Fine Gael, which got the shock of its life in a Sunday Times opinion poll last weekend, went the opposite way to Sinn Féin.
The poll showed support for Leo Varadkar’s party had dropped by five percentage points behind their rivals Fianna Fáil. The poll put support for Fianna Fáíl at 28%, five points higher than Fine Gael, which has dropped by five points to 23%.
The poll showed that support for Fine Gael is at its lowest point since Leo Varadkar became taoiseach two years ago. It was made known to us in the press that we would see a different Leo in the Dáil this week. More aggressive, more direct and more combative, especially with Micheál Martin.
Sure enough, on Tuesday, Leo had a pop off his opposite number after he raised the likelihood of the strike by hospital support staff two days later: “The deputy asked that I send a signal and I am doing so. I ask that he consider the signals he is sending.
“I informed him that was doublespeak because, that evening, he was demanding pay increases for the Defence Forces. I said that he had no particular regard for the Defence Forces and that it would be another group next week, and here he is again this week, doing what he always does which is, on the one hand, criticising the Government for not containing spending and, on the other — which he does every week — backing the causes of every group. Those groups cannot trust him or believe him. He cannot be calling for spending increases for everyone, every week,” he continued.
On Wednesday, he had another pop.
Micheál again raised the pending strike as it was and Leo responded in kind: “I have no difficulty with the deputy raising questions. This is a parliament, a democracy and the place where the Leader of the Opposition asks questions and it is where I answer them.
"He needs to be a bit less querulous, less sensitive and much less precious. It is entirely reasonable for me to point out the hypocrisy of the position of the deputy’s party. Just before this, during priority questions, the Minister for Finance was criticised by Fianna Fáil for increasing spending during the year and using corporation profit tax receipts to do it.
"Then Deputy Martin comes in here and demands more spending just as he did yesterday and the week before.”
Bit rich to be hitting out at the man who is keeping him in the job but Leo’s stock is in decline and, like Mary Lou McDonald, he needs to regain the initiative.
With just three weeks left until the end of the political year, a change in tone is one thing but it remains very doubtful that it is enough to arrest the decline being felt by both parties. Let’s see how long it lasts.