The primary analysis of their latest poll provided by the Sunday Independent yesterday cannot be faulted from a mathematical point of view. The most stable coalition numerically, wrote Kevin Cunningham, would be Fianna Fáil and Sinn Fein with 107 seats.
The revised electoral boundaries and seat numbers announced last week mean that the next Government will need 87 seats to hold and secure power. No party is likely to come close to winning that many by itself. The latest figures project Sinn Fein winning 67, with Fianna Fáil on 40 and Fine Gael on 35. The main losers, per the poll, are the Greens who would collapse to one seat – leaving the present Government 11 seats short of a majority.
And yet the important thing is that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael combined would be much closer to the winning line than Sinn Fein by themselves. And from an ideological point of view, the two “old” parties are sufficiently close that they are effectively just one party with two wings.
The current ideological makeup of the Government is such that the Greens could relatively easily be replaced by their fellow travellers in the Social Democrats without much upheaval – and the latest poll puts the Soc Dems on nine seats. Adding the purple people to the two old parties gets you to within two seats of an overall majority – more than enough to be made up by the margin of error of the poll, or a few last seats in various constituencies falling in unexpected ways. In other words, there’s every chance of the two older parties retaining power after the next election.
The question is whether they want it.
Some in Fianna Fáil, to be sure, would actively prefer coalition with Sinn Fein – in part because of lingering civil war hostility to their present partners, and in part because of the lingering romantic fantasy in Fianna Fáil that it is, at heart, a party of the left.
Yet colder eyed FFers will surely recognise the risk of being the smaller party in such a coalition. After all, they have ruthlessly destroyed the political fortunes of a succession of smaller coalition parties of their own down through the years, from Labour to the Progressive Democrats to now, for a second time, the Greens. Joining SF in Government would expose them to precisely the same risk – and much worse than that, it would hand Fine Gael undisputed control of the opposition benches. If you wanted to devise a plan to put Fianna Fáil on the fast track to extinction, then based on recent Irish political history, you’d stick them in coalition with Sinn Fein.
The reasons for this are fairly obvious: As the larger party, and being in Government for the first time, Sinn Fein would claim the lions share of the credit for the achievements (whatever they might be) of such a Government. Meanwhile, that Government would be plagued by legacy issues from the Government it took over from – of which Fianna Fáil is a member. The party would find itself in the odd position in Government of getting the blame for all the problems that were not solved, and none of the credit for the things that got fixed.
In addition, it would have a Fine Gael party on the opposition benches representing the very large segment of the electorate that is fearful of Sinn Fein, and eager to blame it for being insufficient in stopping SF from enacting the more radical parts of its agenda.
Were it to be an FG-SF coalition, which is highly unlikely, the same issues would present themselves in reverse. In other words, either of the FG/FF parties that abandoned the other to hop into bed with the Shinners would be taking a significant risk with their own political lives.
For Sinn Fein, the situation is relatively bleak in terms of getting to the magic number if both of the two old parties decline to do business with them. 67 seats leaves them 20 short – that gap might be bridged on the most recent figures with the Social Democrats (9) and Labour (3) and the hard left (3) but even that leaves the mythical “left Government” five seats short. Left wing independents like Thomas Pringle? There just ain’t that many of them.
And so if you look at the numbers, the bottom line is that SF need one of FG or FF to defect more than it is in the interests of either party to do so. Looking at that, and given their predeliction for playing the long game, it may well suit SF to be theatrically “kept out” of Government for another term by “the establishment”.
That’s why, if you’re a betting person, and you trust these polls, you’d be foolish to bet heavily against our current crop of Ministers, minus maybe the Greens, getting another go at this.