Michael Martin felt more than a little uneasy as the final results of the general election of 2016 became known. It was true that Fianna Fail was still a handful of seats behind Fine Gael which had just lost 30 of its 76 seats won in 2011, but given the wipeout in 2011, the FF leader had reason to be happy. The reality, however, was that the party now faced a conundrum.
As soon as the shape of the new Dail had become known, both FF and FG had opened lines to the 30 odd (in some cases, very odd) independent TDs, and were quickly determining that keeping a government in place with such a volatile grouping would be almost impossible. Labour had staggered back into the house just barely in double digits, shell-shocked and with half the parliamentary party on Xanax, and in no place to be taking initiatives on anything. The party leader had just narrowly kept her seat after a 4 day recount and the generosity of 3 voters and their 12th preferences.
All eyes were on Sinn Fein, with its 28 new deputies, and the party moved quickly. Martin, knowing full well the impossibility of getting a Fianna Fail/Fine Gael coalition agreed to by his members, and certainly not with FF as the junior partner, had at least to sit down with Sinn Fein. His delegation, let by Willie O’Dea and Michael McGrath were shocked to discover that not only had Sinn Fein prepared a fully detailed programme for government, but they had actually carefully gone line by line through Fianna Fail’s manifesto, “Whatever it takes!”, to find areas of common agreement.
The FF delegation were disturbed by the sheer detail of the programme. This wasn’t a fig leaf to get everybody into Merc and Perks, but a detailed, costed and timed grid of actions for the next government. Taking away the Sinn Fein document, FF had to scrape together a team of experts given that most if its appointed parliamentary “policy advisors” were basically people’s relatives. The experts, including one celebrity economist came back. This programme will reward Sinn Fein voters and basically screw everybody else.
Martin, under pressure, then suddenly found himself receiving another political blow. The acting Taoiseach had invited Fianna Fail for talks, and despite FF protests about the incompatibility of an FG/FF arrangement, the media were getting more and more hysterical about FF’s refusal to meet with the government. On top of that, Martin knew that he needed to at least have a possible FG/FF deal as leverage against the Shinners, and so sat down at a neutral location with Kenny.
As expected, Kenny broadsided him. The Taoiseach, despite his massive setback in the election, was still far more in control of his party than Martin was of his. Martin, in fact, had had to keep the location of both the SF and FG meetings secret to prevent Mary Hanafin turning up to negotiate on behalf of the party whether Martin liked it or not. Retiring to a private room to read the document Kenny had presented, Martin, sipping his herbal tea, was horrified to find nothing policy wise he could object to publicly as unacceptable. Even in the areas of water and property tax, which FF had made big running on during the election campaign, Kenny proposed that an independent commission examine both areas, and that both parties be bound by the outcome. Exactly the sort of thing we would have suggested, Martin thought. He decided to play his big gun.
Returning to the room with the Taoiseach, the FF leader demanded equal cabinet seats and a rotating Taoiseach. Kenny said he’d get back to him. Both men knew they were moving into a game of Political Chicken.
The FF/SF negotiations were now moving at a quick pace, with SF leaking to the media its willingness to take fewer ministerial seats than its share of the Dail suggested in return for policy commitments. FF TDs were beginning to lean on Martin, who was also under huge pressure from the media for even considering coalition. The Corkman decided to gain the initiative, publishing a list of carefully constructed demands of SF. No SF ministers in Justice or Defence. No to Sinn Fein’s demand of the abolition of the Special Criminal Court, and most of all, no Gerry Adams in cabinet.
In the talks, Sinn Fein calmly accepted all three, but with provisos, and suddenly, the deal was done. Kenny tried to sweeten the deal, offering the rotating Taoiseach, but it was too late, and five weeks after polling day, the new Fianna Fail/Sinn Fein Government of National Unity was unveiled.
Many in the media (and Fianna Fail) speculated that the government would play out to a usual ending, with the junior partner getting demonised for the government’s failings, but that was without recognising that Sinn Fein was not a normal political party. Having paralysed the Government Information Service with its own nominees, Fianna Fail ministers protested when Sinn Fein started giving its own party briefings weekly in Sinn Fein headquarters, sometimes announcing measures before they had even been announced in the Dail.
Sinn Fein ministers stuck firmly to the programme for government, again catching out their FF counterparts by turning up on day one with draft legislation prepared in opposition as private members bills. A white paper on a United Ireland was prepared, and legislation which preserved the Special Criminal Court in name but removed the great majority of crimes covered by it was speedily put through the Oireachtas, despite the serious misgivings of some FF TDs.
Then came the budget. Sinn Fein’s wealth tax, new 48% upper rate of tax, increases in employer’s PRSI, and taxing of pension contributions were all rammed through despite FF trying their usual delaying tactics. Finance minister Michael McGrath found that he was department head in name only, as his Sinn Fein junior minister demanded and was given, by order of the Taoiseach, joint access to all papers and decisions. Sinn Fein, to the surprise of FF, didn’t do a Gilmore but actually had every intention on delivering their specific spending promises to their targeted voters, regardless of the effect on the people who didn’t vote for them.
The subtle behind-the-scenes operation of Sinn Fein continued. One Fianna Fail TD was shocked when his daughter showed him her new school history book, and a chapter on great peacemakers such as Ghandi, Mandela and Adams. A question in the Leaving Cert history ordinary paper asked students to identify the parallels between the 1916 Rising and the Armed Struggle of the Provisional IRA.
Then Willie O’Dea resigned from the cabinet when the Taoiseach refused to support him over Sinn Fein’s blocking in cabinet of the promotion of “certain” Gardai, whom they deemed “political” and whom O’Dea pointed out were all counter terrorism and organised crime specialists.
As the 2019 local and European elections approached, Fianna Fail candidates reported that local authorities, with large Sinn Fein membership, and with county managers answerable to the Sinn Fein minister for the environment, had started turning a blind eye to republican murals on local authority housing designating “Sinn Fein territory”. It was becoming harder and harder to canvass in these areas as SF activists dogged and abused other party canvassers, with the result that other parties started cutting their losses and abandoning the areas to Sinn Fein altogether.
Opinion polls showed that the Sinn Fein media operation was unequalled. SF was taking claim for pretty much every good story coming out of government, whilst Fianna Fail, which had embedded all its communications people in well paid government positions, were paralysed by Sinn Fein vetoes and interference over joint government communications. On top of that, business and middle class voters, especially in Dublin, being clobbered by new taxes, were swinging firmly to Fine Gael under its new returned prodigal daughter leader, Lucinda Creighton. Sinn Fein assiduously hovered up a good chunk of the working class and welfare vote with its delivery on welfare spending promises, whilst blaming Fianna Fail for failures elsewhere.
In the local elections, Fine Gael and Sinn Fein were the clear winners, with Fianna Fail taking a hammering from Sinn Fein in working class areas, and Fine Gael in middle class areas. For the first time in its history, Fianna Fail fell to third place in local government seats.
The following week in the Dail, Creighton took great pleasure in presenting the Taoiseach with a biography of German Chancellor Franz Von Papen. The Taoiseach did not appreciate the joke.