Daniel McConnell: Sinn Féin must decide whether they ever want to govern

Despite becoming the largest party in the Dáil, Sinn Féin this week had all the appearance of a noisy perpetual opposition
Daniel McConnell: Sinn Féin must decide whether they ever want to govern

With their broadside against Simon Coveney thoroughly rebuffed, Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy used Dáil privilege to make an allegation about Simon Harris. Not only was his intervention in breach of standing orders, he also made the charge without a shred of evidence. Picture: Gareth Chaney

Sinn Féin is now the largest party in the Dáil. The resignation of Marc MacSharry from Fianna Fáil has reduced its number of TDs to 36.

With Mary Lou McDonald’s party on 37 seats, they are undeniably the party with the most TDs in Dáil Éireann.

Now, you can argue, a shift of one TD here or there means little. However, in light of the historical journey of this incarnation of Sinn Féin, as opposed to the party established by Arthur Griffith, the statement that it is now the largest party in the Dáil is a significant milestone.

Not only that, Business Post in last weekend’s as reflected by the latest Red C poll, Sinn Féin is also the most popular party among the general public, with its increased support remaining in place since its shock surge at the 2020 general election.

SF have come a long way

It most certainly is a long way from the position in 1997 when Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin was the sole Sinn Féin TD in the Dáil.

The latest poll showed Sinn Féin in the lead on 29%, one point ahead of a Fine Gael in retreat over the Katherine Zappone saga, and a Fianna Fáil in turmoil on just 13%. What the poll also showed is that Sinn Féin is the most popular party among young people, the middle-aged, and working-class voters.

In the 18 months since the general election, Sinn Féin’s poll numbers have held up. As a result, the party must be considered as a government party in waiting as opposed to the shouty and noisy party of perpetual opposition.

While the Zappone affair has certainly not been the Government’s finest hour, to say the least, Sinn Féin’s decision to table the motion of no confidence was as dubious as was its performance in the Dáil this week during the debate.

The party raised the political temperature day after day, leading to a momentum building behind the idea of a motion of no confidence being tabled.

By doing so, all the party did was rally the Government together, and quite a number of opposition TDs also flocked to the cause of protecting Simon Coveney. In the end, the margin was far more comfortable than had been anticipated, with the Dáil voting confidence in the Cork South-Central TD by 92 votes to 59.

The Matt Carthy distraction

Perhaps knowing they were about to be hammered, Sinn Féin’s TDs sought to distract from that and decided to throw a cat among the pigeons. That cat came in the form of a speech by Cavan-Monaghan TD Matt Carthy

Mr Carthy decided to use Dáil privilege to make the accusation that Minister Simon Harris leaked the Zappone appointment to the Irish Examiner on July 27.

Technically, by not giving advance warning of what he was about to allege, what Carthy did was itself a breach of Dáil standing orders.

That he did it without a shred of evidence, as he admitted, meant his defence, as articulated on RTÉ News at One, capitulated as quickly as it was offered.

The debate on the Sinn Féin no-confidence motion was, at times, bitter and personal in tone, with TDs trading barbs and insults across the floor of the Dáil chamber. In truth, the whole sequence of events turned into a sorry episode for Sinn Féin and the party comes out of the week not in glory, but licking its wounds.

Hostility and vitriol 

Whatever about the decision to table the motion of no confidence, what was very telling during the debate was the level of vitriol and hostility in the contributions from Sinn Féin members.

The spray fire attack on Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil was, in one way, predictable. A condemnation of insiders looking after their friends while abandoning the small people, a crony appointment by arrogant ministers for the benefit of their golden circle friends.

But such commentary from individual TDs will linger with their opponents, and indicates that Sinn Féin has no appetite to go into power with either of the other previously big parties after the next election.

What alliance could Sinn Féin form?

But who would it go into power with?

It is entirely possible for Sinn Féin to be the lead party after the next election, especially if it gets its candidate selection right this time. It is also entirely possible that Sinn Féin could come back with in excess of 50 seats, but it is unfathomable to think that Sinn Féin can achieve an overall majority of 80-plus seats.

So, even if it does emerge as the largest party after the next election, how does Sinn Féin form a majority government?

Think back to the aftermath of the election last year, when Sinn Féin told the world and its mother that it won the election — yet the party still failed to attract the necessary support to get a majority.

The only support it attracted was that of People Before Profit, which meant Mary Lou McDonald got only 45 votes to be Taoiseach, when 80 were needed.

An alliance of left-wing parties led by Sinn Féin is the best the party can hope for if it truly aspires to be in Government.

But how workable is that in reality?

Who knows how many Green TDs will survive after the next election, but would the remainder be ready to go into power under McDonald as Taoiseach?

Would Sinn Féin be prepared to share power with a party which it has savaged for the previous four to five years?

Also, would the Social Democrats, the Labour Party, Solidarity/People Before Profit, all sign up for this mega alliance in order to keep Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil out? Highly doubtful.

Would a group of independents be in a position to coalesce sufficiently to enter government and ensure it survives? Even more doubtful.

So, as things stand, the route to government remains as complicated and unclear for McDonald and Sinn Féin as it did in 2020.

In 2016, while claiming they wanted to be in power, in truth Sinn Féin walked itself off the pitch. In 2020, they tried but failed miserably to convince enough other parties to share government.

Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Greens had the numbers to isolate and prevent Sinn Féin from entering power, but based on the latest polls they will not.

If Sinn Féin is genuinely going to make that historic leap from opposition into power in 2025, then it needs to behave like a party of government and not the rabble-rousing headline-chaser it was this week.

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