The recent poll in the Irish Times (See here) putting Sinn Fein in second place nationally should not be a source of panic, for a number of reasons:
1: This is a very good poll for Sinn Fein, and given the break down of the strengths of the other parties, it is no longer incredible for Sinn Fein to claim that it could provide a Taoiseach within the next ten years. But there’s the problem: 18% is a respectable result, but it’s nowhere near the late 30s plus huge transfers required to put a party into government single-handedly. In other words, Sinn Fein needs to start thinking (and talking) about coalition partners, and that opens up a huge challenge for Sinn Fein. Coalition means compromise, and Sinn Fein voters are most likely going to be those who feel betrayed when the party can’t deliver its more extravagant promises. And, let us not forget that this isn’t Northern Ireland. Disaffected Sinn Fein voters will have elsewhere to go, such as to the United Left.
2. Fine Gael should be pleased with this result. Unlike FF and FG, a general election contest between Fine Gael and Sinn Fein will be the clearest contest since 1932 between two visions of Ireland. Given that neither party really fears losing votes to the other, It’s not impossible to see such a contest as Ireland’s first ever genuine right/left election. Nor is it impossible to see the minor parties like FF and Labour getting chunks blown off them in the crossfire.
3. Fianna Fail and Labour need to do some serious thinking about their place in such a scenario, as both have a serious possibility of losing significant support to both Fine Gael and Sinn Fein. Fianna Fail, offering itself as a poor imitation of Fine Gael in a time when conservative voters, both rural and urban, will be looking for a strong anti-Sinn Fein party, could find itself in serious trouble. After all, would it be that crazy to imagine an FG/FF coalition after the next election, with a CDU/CSU style merger almost guaranteed afterwards? As for Labour, the party’s modest 2011 first preference but transfer friendly position will be seriously challenged by Sinn Fein next time. Labour in particular needs to do what both the PDs and Greens failed, and start taking electoral reform seriously, because what STV giveth, it can brutally take away.
4. Overall, Irish politics will be served well by a strong performance by Sinn Fein. It finally allows for a real debate on left/right approaches to the economy and taxation, something which parties have traditionally avoided to our detriment. Secondly, the normalisation of Sinn Fein is also a good thing. As the party gets stronger, it has to move from being a protest party to a party of government, and make decisions it never had to make in the North given the sectarian basis of voting there. Sinn Fein will have to answer hard questions about its approach to the economy and taxes, and to whom it will share power with. Let us not forget, if it looks like Sinn Fein are likely to enter power, there will almost certainly be a run on the banks in terms of savings deposits being moved out of the country. How will Sinn Fein confront an issue like that? Could they, for example, end up going the ANC route of finding a non-Sinn Fein minister for finance to reassure business and savers? Or would their refusal to do such a thing send a signal in itself?