With February 2016 as the last possible date for a general election, there will be a new Dail before the Easter Rising’s centenary celebrations. Sinn Fein is practically assured of significantly improving on its current 14 seats but has little chance of winning an overall majority. Since no other party is likely to do so either, the next government will also be a coalition, forcing Sinn Fein to make some hardheaded assessments.
Short of a sudden and unexpected improvement to the economy, the current coalition partners will not secure sufficient support between them to form another administration. This means that the next government in the Republic will be composed of two or more from among, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein, the Labour Party and/or a number of independent TDs. Therefore, no matter how the political deck is shuffled, Sinn Fein will be needed to form a majority unless that is; Fine Gael and Fianna Fail agree to pair off.
There is a problem for Sinn Fein in this and that is its president. No other party and especially Fianna Fail can afford to have Gerry Adams sitting on the government front bench as Tánaiste. The reason is not because of the difficulties surrounding the McConville or Liam Adams cases (that is already discounted) but for two other reasons.
First, there is a real fear among other political parties that some new nasty ‘Gerry-related’ story may present itself unexpectedly, and after his 50 years in radical politics, that cannot be ruled out. The membership of Fianna fall and Labour would not be prepared to stoically endure the bemused scorn of the mass media dealing with difficult to accept denials. Another, and probably even more profound difficulty for a Fianna Fail Taoiseach would be the simple fact that sharing the front bench with Gerry Adams would lead to him being entirely eclipsed by the Sinn Fein president. Micheal Martin cannot afford, nor would his party tolerate, the general public and international media asking who is that man with a receding hairline sitting beside Gerry Adams?
Unlike Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail has the political option of entering coalition with Fine Gael. The two parties are compatible, having almost identical economic and social policies. Moreover, the idea of working together has recently been mooted by senior members of both organisations. Old Civil War animosities have dissipated over the years and would dissolve amidst widespread rejoicing over ‘a long overdue reconciliation’.
Sinn Fein has now to decide whether it wishes to participate in the next government or remain on the opposition benches. Does it wish to have its party leader stand and accept the salute beside the Taoiseach on the reviewing stand before the GPO on Easter Sunday 2016 or watch on from a much less prominent position? If the young, capable, not to mention ambitious Sinn Fein TDs want to be in Cabinet in the next Dail and reap the additional benefit of Centenary celebrations, they must decide soon on who leads the party into the next election. No political party can change management in the run up to such a major challenge. It takes time for a new leader to establish his or her authority and time will also be required to heal wounds that inevitably follow a leadership contest.
Pressure from a younger generation of potential leaders recently caused Gerry Adams to make a dramatic U-turn on his personal position in relation to the Senate referendum. A similar strike could force him to accept the inevitable and stand aside in the interests of the party and logic would dictate that this must be sooner rather than later.