THE stunning victory scored by Sinn Féin in the weekend election has sent a shockwave through the southern political establishment – so much so that a sense of disbelief has descended on the mainstream Dublin media and the former two big parties to the extent that little of any note has been said or done that might give us any real idea of where we’re headed in the next few weeks.
Party leader Mary Lou McDonald has been making what looks like a fairly desultory attempt to forge a coalition of the left that would send her to Leinster House as Taoiseach. The mathematics make that prospect an unlikely one, but what might make it even more unlikely is the idea of the nightmare that would be the job of any Taoiseach attempting to lead a coalition comprised of so many parties connected by such a thin string. Their ideologies and priorities – while nominally on the left spectrum – are as diverse as those that separate Sinn Féin from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
The growing consensus is that if Sinn Féin is finally to enter government in the Republic it will be as part of a three-way deal involving Fianna Fáil and a third party – possibly the Greens or the Social Democrats, the latter giving that coalition a majority of just one, the former a majority of seven. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s pre-election pledge not to go into government with Sinn Féin went out the window when the results of the RTE exit poll were announced on Saturday evening. If he doesn’t get the big job – and this is his last chance after nine years in charge of the party – he will become the only leader of Fianna Fáil never to have been Taoiseach, and he can hardly be blamed for not wanting that to be the first line in his future Wikipedia entry. But it won’t be Mr Martin’s eagerness to shake hands with President Michael D. Higgins that will determine the Fianna Fáil decision on whether or not to do business with Sinn Féin. The Fianna Fáil leader is damaged goods – as is his Fine Gael counterpart Leo Varadkar. It will be big name Fianna Fáil survivors from the disastrous election that will make the call when the parliamentary party sits down to decide what to do next.
Meanwhile, anyone who thought Sinn Féin would downplay the national question after their big success in order not to spook the horses was badly mistaken. The issue of reunification was immediately put front and centre by Mrs McDonald, who in a series of interviews indicated that a border poll is a priority. She said that in the wake of Brexit a border poll is “an absolute priority” – and she is right. The lesson we have learned on this side of the Irish Sea from the Brexit debacle is that meaningful and substantial preparations are required ahead of such seismic constitutional change.
The effect of this election on the physical make-up of the 33rd Dáil is yet to be seen, but in a way the psychological jolt that has been delivered north and south could be just as important. It will have sent an unmistakable message to those who continue to do a Three Wise Monkeys act in relation to the profound changes sweeping the island – and that message is that an opportunity to shape change is infinitely preferable to the danger of being shaped by it.