Sinn Fein splash

Sinn Fein is topping the polls, but do you trust it to run the country?

By 

Daniel McConnell and Paul Hosford

That is the question many people are now asking themselves with sustained opinion poll data putting the party as the most popular in the country. Their remarkable surge at the time of the 2020 general election has not only been maintained, but advanced upon. As a result, they appear at this point to not just be on the cusp of being in the next government but actually leading it.

The prospect of that possibility is already being felt around the wider political system and therefore it is apt that a serious and considered examination of their policy promises in opposition and their key personnel takes place.
Based on a series of forensic questions put to Sinn Féin, Irish Examiner seeks to set out for you, the reader, where the party stands on the crucial affairs of state.

We set out the question we asked, the party’s response and we have obtained independent analysis from experts in their fields to run the rule over the credibility of their policies.

Education

We ask Education spokesperson Donnchadh O Laoghaire, and Higher Education spokesperson Rose Conway Walsh about class sizes, sex education and third level funding. 

Health

We ask health spokesperson David Cullinane about the two-tiered system, the national children's hospital, un-filled places and consultant contracts.

Agriculture

We ask Matt Carthy, spokesperson on agriculture,  about reducing the national herd and whether income to farmers should increase or decrease.

Justice

We ask Martin Kenny about the Special Criminal Court, the proposal to end the system of Direct Provision, and imroving accountability within the Gárda Siochána.

Housing

We ask Eoin O'Broin, spokesperson for housing,  for Sinn Féin's stance on the housing crisis, evictions, rent freezes, social housing, public land use and void units.

Climate

We ask Darren O'Rourke about meeting Ireland's carbon emission reduction targets, energy provision and Just Transition targets, and the Climate Bill .

Taxation/ Economy

We ask Pearse Doherty and Máiréad Farrell about wealth tax, corporation tax, local property tax, and tax breaks for executives.

Social Protection

We ask Claire Kerrane about Covid supports, the principle of an auto-enrollment pension, and when the old age pension should be paid from. 

United Ireland

We ask party leader, Mary Lou McDonald when she proposes calling a referendum on a United Ireland and what steps need to be taken. 

At the outset, this is not a hatchet job of a hostile media outlet, nor is it a pandering soft-piece aimed at currying favour with a potential government player.

We have allowed our experts to say where they have proposed good ideas. But likewise, where the answers were less convincing, we say so too.

This is merely an attempt by us to give a proper and sober analysis of Sinn Féin’s policies and allow experts to pose the questions they raise for a party which claims it is ready to govern.

Mary Lou McDonald - Election 2020

Is Sinn Féin ready to go from a party of booing to doing?

By 

Daniel McConnell 

ANYONE who knows politics understands that being in government is a world away from what life is like as an opposition party.
In opposition, you speak; in government, you act.
Going from a party of booing to one of doing is rarely an easy transition, but the prize is substantial if it can be achieved.

To paraphrase former tánaiste Mary Harney’s famous line, your worst day in government is still better than your best day in opposition.

A succession of opinion polls in recent months have placed Sinn Féin as the most popular party in Ireland.

Should that be replicated on polling day at the next general election, Sinn Féin can expect to not only be in the next government, but be the lead party.
Such a realisation, based on that succession of opinion polls, is already having a tangible impact on the political establishment in Ireland.
Interest groups are circling the party and are now far more reticent to criticise its more extreme policies.

 

A segment from an interview with Mary Lou McDonald at a National Press Club’s in-person Headliners newsmaker on Thursday, Dec. 2 in the US.  Video National Press Club.

 

“We’ll have to work with these people in a couple of years,” is the mantra most often repeated these days from lobby groups and agencies that have silenced their previously vocal criticisms.

Even in the Dáil, in a sign of changing times, Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore called on Sinn Féin to set out its position on a matter this week on the basis it is “likely to be in government”.

Correctly, a greater deal of scrutiny is coming on the party, which in the past has been shamelessly populist, economically illiterate, and woefully inconsistent in its policy creation.

This examination by the Irish Examiner into Sinn Féin’s main policies has elucidated some interesting answers as to its main priorities. Some of the party’s answers are far from radical and sit neatly alongside those of Fianna Fáil, Labour, and the Social Democrats. Some are dubious in terms of the cost to fund, not only in year one, but long term.

Take one example. Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane this week called for free antigen tests for everyone, a €500m decision as Taoiseach Micheál Martin pointed out.
Such a policy was not isolated. Many of the spending measures proposed by Sinn Féin to us are hugely expensive and what is missing in the totality is a credible and coherent plan to deliver it.
There is no magic money tree in government.
You are spending real money that has to be raised in taxes or borrowed.

Dr Dave Mullane

Sinn Fein spokesperson on Health David Cullinane TD at the launch of Sinn Fein’s Alternative Health Budget in the Trinity City Hotel, Pearse Street Dublin, last September. 

Sinn Féin’s recent alternative budget drew criticisms from Fine Gael that its planned spending package failed to account for almost €3.25bn and that it can’t be trusted with the public finances — a sign there is political mileage to be gained by attacking their figures.
This reflects a lingering perception that Sinn Fein can’t do numbers.
This is notwithstanding Pearse Doherty’s superb work on tackling the price gouging by the insurance industry.

Yes, the party’s primary economic policies come from a socialist perspective and cater for that niche audience in Ireland.
It was populist, but it was never mainstream.
Under Mary Lou McDonald, the party has already made significant inroads into more affluent and higher-educated voting categories.
The adage in Irish politics continues to apply — win the middle classes and you win the election.

The party has softened its stance on many policies, including on some of its taxation policies for higher-income earners, and it has made significant efforts in recent years to try to reassure the business community that a Sinn Féin government would not be entirely hostile to them.
While all the indications are positive for the party and its backers, the path to power is far from straightforward.

 
Rose Conway-Walsh, Sinn Féin celebrates with her supporters after being elected on the first count at the General Election Count Centre in the TF Royal Hotel in Castlebar, Co. Mayo in February 2020.  Photo : Keith Heneghan

Rose Conway-Walsh, Sinn Féin celebrates with her supporters after being elected on the first count at the General Election Count Centre in the TF Royal Hotel in Castlebar, Co. Mayo in February 2020.  Photo : Keith Heneghan

Sinn Féin certainly left a number of seats behind it at the last election and is set to dramatically increase it current Dáil seats number of 37.
Spooked by the woeful 2019 local and European elections, it was over-zealous in de-selecting candidates just weeks before its 2020 surge materialised.
Now, what is clear is that many of its current TDs were elected on the crest of the Sinn Féin wave, as opposed to the personal vote they attracted.
Several TDs had been rejected as council candidates just eight months previously, while Patricia Ryan went on holidays in the middle of the campaign and still got elected.

Also, of those who did get elected, there are some doubts over the abilities of the new TDs.

It appears the party knows that too — housing a number of its TDs in offices in the basement of Leinster House, away from the party’s leading lights.
Next time around, the party will be seeking to expand on its 37 seats and could realistically scoop more than 50.
Winning 50-plus seats would certainly put it in the driving seat to form the next government, but still well short of a Dáil majority.
Thus, finding coalition partners is a must and it is an open question as to which parties would actually be prepared to share power with Sinn Féin.
It is highly doubtful that a jaded and bruised Fine Gael, having been in power since 2011, could fathom continuing in government for a fourth term.
It would be bad for the country and bad for the party.
The same cannot be said of Fianna Fáil, whose future is questionable.
Based on a succession of polls, Fianna Fáil is consistently only the third most popular party in the country, but the inevitable change of leader from Micheál Martin could help revive its fortunes.

Even if the party was to return with fewer seats than Sinn Féin, it could well fancy its chances of entering power knowing it has far more experience in governing.
Another important aspect to remember is that Sinn Féin has, at best, a limited knowledge of how the actual machinery of government works.

Pearse Doherty, the party’s deputy leader in the Dáil, has been a leading force of the party’s modernisation and move to the centre.

Pearse Doherty, the party’s deputy leader in the Dáil, has been a leading force of the party’s modernisation and move to the centre. 

Sinn Féin’s recent alternative budget drew criticisms from Fine Gael that its planned spending package failed to account for almost €3.25bn and that it can’t be trusted with the public finances — a sign there is political mileage to be gained by attacking their figures.
This reflects a lingering perception that Sinn Fein can’t do numbers.
This is notwithstanding Pearse Doherty’s superb work on tackling the price gouging by the insurance industry.

Yes, the party’s primary economic policies come from a socialist perspective and cater for that niche audience in Ireland.
It was populist, but it was never mainstream.
Under Mary Lou McDonald, the party has already made significant inroads into more affluent and higher-educated voting categories.
The adage in Irish politics continues to apply — win the middle classes and you win the election.

The party has softened its stance on many policies, including on some of its taxation policies for higher-income earners, and it has made significant efforts in recent years to try to reassure the business community that a Sinn Féin government would not be entirely hostile to them.
While all the indications are positive for the party and its backers, the path to power is far from straightforward.

Party sources have conceded that they don’t have any interaction with or knowledge of who the key officials are, nor do they have any experience of progressing legislation as ministers through the Oireachtas and affecting change.

Sinn Fein Think-In at the Clayton Hotel.

As for the other parties, could Sinn Féin find itself in talks with the Greens? It is possible, but the Greens, having been the third wheel in this Government, may suffer badly at the polls next time.
It is also unlikely Labour or the Social Democrats would favour entering power with Sinn Féin, but obviously their calculations would greatly depend on how many seats they each return with.

The same could be said for the other left-wing parties that have never shown any real appetite for being in government. Shouting from the side lines in opposition is far safer.

With an election at least three years away, we are still only beginning to talk of the possibility of a Sinn Féin government here.
However, for the first time since they re-entered the Dáil in 1997 with just one TD, it is a genuine possibility and something the public seems relatively at ease with.

For all of her party’s inconsistencies and policy limitations, Ms McDonald is now seen as potentially Ireland’s first female Taoiseach and that prospect itself now seems more plausible than ever.

Irish Examiner Longread

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