What have the DUP, the Fianna Fáil leadership and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) got in common? At the start of this year the DUP described Sinn Féin, and those who vote for our party, as ‘alligators’. Last Friday evening one Fianna Fáil TD, who was arguing against any future coalition arrangement with Sinn Féin, tried to go one better by telling an enraptured FF audience ‘you don’t deal with the serpent by inviting it into your bed.’
He obviously doesn't believe that Saint Patrick got rid of snakes from our wee island. Or else he speaks with a forked tongue. At any rate the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis almost unanimously backed this position. And then to round matters off the leader of the TUV, Jim Allister, welcomed the Fianna Fáil vote and commended it to the DUP as the way forward. He said: ‘That’s sound advice for parties south of the border and all the more so for Unionist parties.’ In fairness to Wee Jim he did acknowledge 'there is hypocrisy in the Fianna Fáil stance’. Wee Jim is like that. Observant.
So the Fianna Fáil Leader's stance fools no one. Micheál Martin, looking over his shoulder at the increasing electoral strength of Sinn Féin, north and south, is desperate to stymie the growth of Sinn Féin. We are an electoral threat to the status quo. That cannot be tolerated. In the search for wayward Fine Gael votes Teachta Martin cannot be seen to be soft on the Shinners. Heaven forbid.
For that reason and no other, whether at his Ard Fheis or in the Dáil chamber or wherever he has an audience, Martin keeps beating the drum about the unfitness of Sinn Féin for government in Dublin. He does this while berating us for not going into government in Belfast on DUP terms. That's Fianna Fail for ya!
So, let’s look briefly at their track record. Just before the general election last year Teachta Martin ruled out coalition with Fine Gael. After the election he negotiated a ‘supply and confidence agreement’ – not unlike the DUP and Tories in Westminster – which has Fianna Fáil keeping a minority Fine Gael government in power. That means that the appalling decisions of Fine Gael in last week’s budget on health and housing, on the provision of mental health services and respite care, on stamp duty and on women pensioners, are all supported by Fianna Fáil.
This Fine Gael government, which Martin condemns, wouldn't be in power if he didn't support it. He is trying to cover his options for the next general election. For that reason a few months ago he refused to rule out a so-called ‘grand coalition’ with Fine Gael in the future. When asked by The Examiner in the summer about this he said he ‘hasn’t ruled anything in or out.’ That's fair enough. But since then he has ruled out government with Fine Gael. He has ruled out government with Sinn Féin. He says he accepts that Fianna Fáil can't form a government on their own. Figure all that out? In the meantime Micheál presents himself as being against the Fine Gael minority government.
That is nonsense. The two conservative parties are natural bed fellows with policies that are essentially the same. So the rí rá between them is a sham. It’s not about what might be good for society or for citizens, or the people of the island of Ireland. Nope. It's about what will best serve the narrow self-interests of the Fianna Fáil party leadership. Or the Fine Gael leadership for that matter. Recent history shows it has always placed themselves first and the people second.
But politics north and south is in flux. The civil war politics of the 1920’s, which determined the shape of southern Irish politics for decades is over – gone. The history remains and for some it may be personal but since last year’s general election Fianna Fáil has elected two Fine Gael Taoisigh. It has helped to pass two Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil budgets. In the Dáil chamber it regularly votes with the government or abstains to ensure that government motions pass or other motions are defeated. By the way that has been the case in local councils for decades.
All of this puts a spotlight on the issue of coalition as a means of advancing party political objectives and implementing policies. In the north Sinn Féin is currently engaged in intense negotiations with the DUP to try and restore an Executive which is essentially a ‘grand coalition’. The difficulties involved in putting together an Executive and a Programme for Government by parties which are so fundamentally different and have such opposite political philosophies, highlights the problems involved.
At the next general election in the south Sinn Féin will be seeking a mandate to go into government in that part of the island also. Fianna Fáil has said no. Fine Gael say the same. But neither party has a divine right to be in government. Or to decide who might be in that government. That's the people's prerogative. It will be the vote of the electorate that will determine the shape of the next government. Political parties can only decide who they might or might not go into government with. If they have a mandate.
Many people within Sinn Féin and our electorate detest the tweedledee – tweedledum politics of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Quite rightly. The very thought that our party might put either of them into government is abhorrent to many activists and republican voters. And that dislike is well founded. The Fianna Fáil leadership is linked to corruption and the wrecking of the economy. Fine Gael forced ordinary citizens to bail out the banks and imposed a debt that our grandchildren will still be paying off decades from now. None of these parties have a strategy to end partition or the Union. On the contrary their leaderships are about upholding the status quo. Both have depended on emigration as a policy option. That’s why generations of young Irish people are scattered across the world. So Sinn Féin is against these parties being in government. We want to replace them, not to endorse them. We need a mandate to do this. That is our focus. To change the system. Not to join it.
Will Sinn Féin talk to these parties? Of course we will. And others as well. We are the party of and for dialogue. It is Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who ruled out talking to us after the last election. As well as their innate conservatism both of these parties agree on keeping Sinn Féin out. The reason for this is obvious. Between them they have governed and dominated southern politics since the state was established. They are fiercely opposed to the practical democratic core values of Sinn Féin. They are against a rights based citizens’ centred society. So there is no right to a public health system. No right to a home. Or to education. No real effort to unite the people of Ireland. No real republican vision for fairness and equality.
So, what Sinn Féin has to do in the next election is to get the biggest mandate possible. Our aim has to be to lead the next government. The size of our vote will determine this. It also will determine the size of the other parties' mandates. But our only purpose in going into government will be to effect real change – on housing and health and public services and also on the issue of Irish unity.
If we get an appropriate mandate a decision to go into government will be determined by a special Ard Fheis of the party. It will be a collective decision taken by all. One thing you can be very sure of. Sinn Féin will not do what the Progressive Democrats or Labour or the Green Party did in their time. We are not about bolstering Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. Serpents may have forked tongues. Sinn Féin don't.