A Sinn Fein-Fine Gael coalition is (now) no longer an unbelievable idea.

There is an old Vulcan saying: “Only Nixon could have gone to China.” It was referenced by Spock when he proposed, much to James T Kirk’s chagrin, that only an anti-Klingon hardliner like the Enterprise captain would be trusted by the Federation to negotiate with their old enemies in crucial peace talks. Likewise, we as a country are approaching a crucial moment in Irish history: where the real breach in Irish politics, not that between FF and FG, but that between Sinn Fein and the state itself, is finally healed. For that to happen, those of us who fear for the integrity of the state itself have a choice to make. Do we attempt to keep SF out of government forever, or do attempted the political version of a controlled re-entry?

At SF’s current support in the country it is simply no longer viable to maintain a Cordon Sanitaire against the party. I have many criticisms of SF but it is no longer a party of its historical extreme anymore than FG is. It is the democratic choice of anything from 25%-35% of Irish voters and that is a mandate. There are those in the party who have a curiously Tory view of politics, that if Sinn Fein wins the plurality of the vote it somehow has the right (as Tories believe in the UK) to impose their minority opinions on the majority because they were “first past the post”. But this is not the UK: this is a republic with a parliament elected by a fair voting system which means that a government must have majority support in the parliament, and that parliament’s majority must have majority support (or close to it) in the country. Does it lead to weaker government? Almost certainly: we’ve never had a Mrs Thatcher in this country, and on the other hand, we’ve never had a Mrs Thatcher in this country.

Keeping Sinn Fein permanently out of government is no more healthy than the situation in the north, keeping them (and the DUP) permanently in government. Their day, to coin a phrase, will come.

Thanks to STV however, it is very unlikely they’ll even be close to a majority in the Dail, and so will need coalition partners, and it seems to me that FG may well be the least worst option.

The idea of FG in coalition with SF is not a new one. Many in FF suggested it before the last election, but both FF and FG ruled it out, and kept that particular promise. But at the next election I believe it would be wrong for FF or FG to rule out coalition with SF, if only because it is looking mathematically, if the polls are accurate, that at least two of those three parties will be needed to form a stable government.

You could be forgiven for thinking that FF would be a more logical coalition partner, given FF’s republican roots etc. But I’d like to suggest that such an option would be a very bad choice for FF because FF is in a curiously weak ideological position, and yes, that actually matters. A party that currently resembles more a franchise like Spar than a party with a set of cogent and unique values is open to infection (and eventual assimilation) by its coalition partner. Look how FF went to the right in coalition with the Progressive Democrats, and to the left with Labour. It’s the large jug of water waiting to be flavoured by the stronger Mi-Wadi of its partners, and SF definitely has the stronger flavour of the two. Could FF be to SF in govt what the PDs were to FF in their watchdog role? It’s hard to say that FF is currently as strong in its self-identity as the PDs were in theirs, and that makes FF vulnerable to a de facto reverse takeover in coalition with SF, with FF candidates ending up as sweeper candidates for their coalition partners.

A stronger argument can be made that FG would be the better coalition partner with SF, in that both parties would then cover the two broad political viewpoints in the country. It’s also very unlikely that either SF or FG would end up in either’s thrall, and that’s to the good. Both would check each other’s excesses, FG would take the national security issue seriously, and FF would, with the Alphabet Left, have an opportunity to recover in opposition and provide robust scrutiny to an SF/FG government.

Indeed, a decision by FF to refuse to coalesce with SF would put SF in a very awkward position, assuming FG don’t rule it out also, in that it’ll be hard for SF to play the cheated victim if it refuses an offer from FG to enter negotiations to form a coalition, especially now as the principle of a rotating Taoiseach has now been conceded.

The challenge for FG is equally substantial. The default position, vote FG to keep SF out, is a simple and attractive one, from a vote-getting perspective. But it is not the national interest position. SF are not going away. SF speaks for a substantial section of the Irish people and will enter government at some point, and it is better they enter government with an equally strong-willed coalition partner as opposed to the current “in-therapy” FF or the rubber-stamping magic-bean buying Social Democrats. FG needs to start preparing its voters for this possibility, because if there is one thing we have learnt from recent Irish politics: Irish voters don’t like either surprises or 180 degree handbrake turns from the parties they’ve just voted for.

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