Time to let Sinn Féin into the political centre

If we had a penny for every time a Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil politician alluded to Yeats in the past 18 months, Paschal Donohoe might not have to rummage around for extra cash for his October budget. Where Yeats said the centre cannot hold, the two main parties tell us it can, but on their terms.

The current arrangement is serving Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil well. From their election performances of 25.5 per cent and 24.3 per cent respectively, both now hover around the 30 per cent mark in opinion polls. Both can reassure themselves they are set fair to lead coalition governments for the foreseeable future, but there is a long-term problem with this presumption: a selfish centre risks damaging itself if it is unwilling to share the privilege of responsibility.

Over their shoulders is Sinn Féin, polling at about 20 per cent, up from its election performance of 14 per cent, a showing which won the party 24 seats. The pattern points to the re-emergence of some sort of a 2½-party system, albeit with Sinn Féin as the third party instead of Labour, and Fianna Fáil much weaker than when it was in its pomp.

Even allowing for the fact that it traditionally sees support drop back at election time, Sinn Féin has a credible ambition of 30 Dáil seats in the coming years.Sinn Féin’s ambitions also extend towards Government Buildings, even if it means accepting the role of junior coalition partner. And the party’s shifting stance is posing a conundrum that must be solved sooner or later. Does the centre, self-defined by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, refuse to widen its reach to allow others in?


If the stated goal of protecting the centre ground is to halt the rise of populism, then there is perhaps no greater way of encouraging almost a fifth of the electorate towards more extreme political positions than telling them their choice of political party is not good enough.

Mary Lou McDonald says Sinn Féin will talk to all-comers after an election, but senior party figures believe that Fianna Fáil, for cultural reasons, is the likeliest partner. Fianna Fáilers insist that Fine Gael must also be asked the Sinn Féin question, and that both main parties must be held to the same standards. Yet it is generally accepted that if anyone is to bring Sinn Féin into government, it will be Fianna Fáil.