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.
The 2½-party system suited everyone when Labour could be relied upon as a junior partner, but now that those votes have migrated to Sinn Féin, it is seemingly not good enough. Such rejection will be all the more acute if Sinn Féin moves towards the centre – and deals with its own internal issues – to make itself more acceptable.
Policies can be cast overboard like sandbags from a hot-air balloon if Sinn Féin wants its ambitions to take flight. A traditional Euroscepticism became Europhilia when the Brexit referendum passed and rekindled talk of Irish unity, and previous objections to the 12.5 per cent corporation tax have been shelved. The past is a different matter, however, as are certain elements of the party’s culture.
Some in Sinn Féin believe Fianna Fáil will do anything to get into power, and will drop all objections after the next election in order to form a majority government.
Not so. Many Fianna Fáil TDs are utterly hostile to the idea, borne partly of disgust for Sinn Féin and partly because of a fear of a flight of middle-class votes.
Even those deputies who are open to doing business say that Gerry Adams must stand down before the two parties could even talk, and that Sinn Féin must behave more like a party and less like a “cult”.
Against Sinn Féin willingness, Micheál Martin has been consistent in his rejection of a coalition, and must be taken at his word since he held to his promise that he would not enter government with Fine Gael. Yet he has left open the prospect of a confidence-and-supply deal, although this has now been rejected by McDonald. In words perhaps aimed at Fianna Fáil as much as her own party, she said: “You either take the plunge and go into government or you don’t.”
The battle of the next election will be fought, as usual, between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and will be a race towards 60 seats. Martin this week set off another hare by declining to rule out a grand coalition with Fine Gael as long as Fianna Fáil is the larger party. That is almost certainly a non-runner since Fianna Fáil would have to fully reciprocate Enda Kenny’s offer of last year – equal partnership, complete with a rotating taoiseach – for Varadkar to realistically consider it.
Should Martin return with more seats than Varadkar but still fail to build a majority coalition, he can justifiably expect that Fine Gael will enter into a confidence-and-supply agreement with Fianna Fáil. If Varadkar emerges on top, the context could change dramatically. The choice then facing Fianna Fáil will be stark: another spell in opposition or talk to Sinn Féin.
Either Martin, or perhaps another Fianna Fáil leader, would have to do a U-turn, or McDonald, likely to be at the helm of Sinn Féin by then, would have to eat her words and accept a confidence-and-supply deal.
Even if Sinn Féin is kept out of government once again, the time is coming when it will be in a position of power in Dublin.
The political system – and Irish society – must ready itself for Sinn Féin to come into the mainstream