“In my view the Labour Party has a duty not to prop up either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. Instead Labour should explore with us and others the potential for co-operation in the future,”; These are interesting words issued by Gerry Adams at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis over the weekend.
Undoubtedly the call for coalition with Labour is motivated by the recent Irish Times TNS/MRBI opinion poll. Support for Labour was at 22 per cent and Sinn Féin 9 per cent. This gives them a combined total of 31 per cent, just one percentage point below support for Fine Gael. It will be interesting to see if Labour respond positively to moves by Sinn Féin to build a new alliance. However, I sense Labour will respond negatively for two main reasons.
Firstly, there is a generational tension amongst the electorate when it comes to support for Sinn Féin. I think (anecdotal of course) that younger voters (below 30) are more inclined to view Sinn Féin on the basis of their current policies, as opposed to their historical connections with political violence. Most young voters do not have first hand experience of the IRA campaign in the 70’s, early 80’s and this will undoubtedly affect their perception of Sinn Féin at the ballot box. On the other hand, some older voters (particularly middle class voters) would not touch Sinn Féin with a barge poll. As older voters are more inclined to vote, Labour are unlikely to take the political risk of supporting Sinn Féin, particularly in advance of any general election.
Secondly, many of Sinn Féins most vocal critics are in the Labour party. The historical residue of splits amongst the workers party, the provisionals and the democratic left etc are unlikely to disappear over night. This residue is thick within the party and a big obstacle for those who view an alliance with Sinn Féin as a logical and pragmatic alternative to an alliance with Fine Gael. Also, many of Labour supporters (professional/ third level educated middle-class) share the contempt that many Labour politicians hold for Sinn Féin. If any Labour party TD viewed a SF alliance as a threat to his or her seat, then a pre-election pact would be immediately ruled out by the parliamentary party.
A third but less difficult obstacle is their different policies on the EU. The Labour party are alligned to the the party of European Socialists in the EU. Sinn Féin are alligned to European United Left-Nordic Green left. This in-itself will not cause friction in terms of building a national coalition. What will cause tension is their differences over the Lisbon treaty, and greater EU integration in general. Labour are staunchly pro-european. Sinn Féin (despite being part of EUL-NGL) are not. This difficulty will come to the fore during the proposed re-run of the Lisbon Treaty. The nationalist rhetoric of Sinn Féin may prove to be too much for socialist Labour. SF will emphasise the shared republican platform of egalitarian citizenship which could create common ground.
From a political-science point of view it makes rational sense for the left parties in Ireland to build a broad coalition as an alternative to the two main center-right parties. This makes even more rational sense in the current economic climate. Presently, Labour have more policy commonalities with SF than they do with FG. FG are a center right party that have drifted more to the right in the current crisis. Labour have drifted more to the left. Sinn Féin have tidied up a lot of their policies since their poor performance in the last general election. They have ‘southern’ proofed their policies and moved more toward a traditional social-democratic policy platform.
Sinn Féin are also likely to increase their vote at the next general election. Fianna Fáil took a lot of votes off SF in the previous election (In Dublin South-West, Séan Crowe ran away with the election eight years ago but lost the seat in the previous election, whilst FF topped the poll with Conor Lenihan and Charlie O’Connor). In the next election, a fair share of FF voters will shift their alliance back to SF, with many transfer going to Labour. This could prove crucial in terms of the election outcome.
Sinn Féin are a government party in Northern Ireland. To ignore or dismiss the possibility of Sinn Féin being a government party in Southern Ireland is insulting to the Northern electorate. However, if SF do want to be a government party in the Republic then they cannot continue having two seperate policy agenda’s for two different regions. This is something they need to tackle. Either way, if a mandate is given by the electorate to left of center political parties at the next election then the formation of government ought to reflect this. If a scenario occurs that Labour, SF and the Greens could form a government after the next election then we may just see a radical-reformation of Ireland’s parlimentary system.