Sinn Fein on track for big gains – but not for government

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It’s a quieter time of year and I suppose you get a little bit more room for reflection.

Since May, everybody has been talking about the rise in Sinn Féin and I suppose their success in both the European and local elections signalled the fact it has arrived as a major force in southern politics.

The party is still in third place and will probably remain in that position after the next General Election.

In the long term, however, many are convinced that Sinn Féin will eclipse one of the two major parties (and Fianna Fáil looks the more likely at this stage), forcing them into a coalition.

Leo Varadkar, the big star of the Coalition at the moment, said after the May elections that the next General Election in 2016 would be a battle between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.

It’s not that they will battle it out to the death. It’s just that the big ideological debates in the election campaign will boil down to clashes on the views espoused by Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.

Fianna Fáil and Labour will be generally seen as being close to the Fine Gael camp, except for a number of small but significant issues (Fianna Fáil in particular is closer to Sinn Féin on the national question – marginally closer only – and is very close to Sinn Féin when it comes to Irish language policies).

How well will the party do? If things don’t change dramatically over the next 18 months, fabulously. It’s going to be in contention for multiple seats in constituencies where the party is strong.

You can take it that Sinn Féin will take two seats in Donegal, Louth, Cavan-Monaghan and maybe a constituency like Dublin South-West. They have an outside chance of taking three out of five in one or two constituencies.

And they could take seats in a rake of constituencies where they had a pimple of a presence as recently as 2011 – Galway West is now a definite target.

The party has established an identity as the main out-and-out Opposition party, with a consistent anti-austerity message.

You see a lot of the moves and you wonder for if Sinn Féin really believes its own rhetoric (hmmm, a tough one, I’ll come back to you on that in future) or is just being cynical. Of course, there’s cynicism and opportunism there but it’s no different to any of the other parties.

Bertie Ahern was right in 2005 when he said it would take 20 years for it to complete the same journey as the Workers Party did. The party still has the discipline instilled from the military past. Its representatives are always on message.

It went to the point of farce when it actually came up with a whipped party viewpoint on the Garth Brooks concert. It has a lot of bright people but some are pretty hardline. It has more people working for the party (61) centrally than any of the other parties and the majority of its 150-plus councillors will be full-timers giving fealty to the party over any job or career.

Just as Varadkar has magically assumed an image as a straight talker, Sinn Féin has garnered an image of a possible alternative government.

Its opponents said that being in power in local authorities would remove a lot of its bite. But local government is second-tier and if things go wrong you can always blame central government.

I’d be surprised if Sinn Féin get really punished or tested in 2016.

Despite the change of leadership, Labour, like all minority coalition parties, will struggle to contain its losses. Fine Gael will lose seats too. Fianna Fáil will gain but not as solidly as seemed maybe a year ago (the party is a little becalmed at present, as the great Éamon Ó Cuív might put it).

Sure, some of the splinter parties will make modest gains, and the Reform Alliance may gouge at the edges of Fine Gael.

But the big winners will be Sinn Féin. People vote with their pockets in general elections.

Sure, Sinn Féin will find its pretty unconvincing economic policies subject to very rigorous scrutiny. If the answer to the Hillary Clinton question of ‘who do you call at 3am when the economy is on the verge of collapse’ is Sinn Féin, you might start to worry a little.

For more from Harry McGee see this week’s Tribunes

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