The most important general election on the island of Ireland since 1918 is scheduled for Friday February 26 when voters in the Irish Republic will elect the 32nd Dail. Maybe it’s a good omen that it’s Dail number 32, given that republicans will commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising which aimed to bring about a 32-county democratic socialist republic.
The spotlight will be on Sinn Fein. The party stands on the threshold of its best Dail showing since the 1918 Westminster election landslide when Ireland was still entirely under British rule. In that poll, Sinn Fein secured more than 70 of the island’s 105 House of Commons seats. Because of the party’s strict abstentionist policy, Sinn Fein established its own “parliament” in Dublin.
Now, in theory, the party under former West Belfast MP Gerry Adams could easily become a minority government partner in Leinster House with current Taioseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny’s centre-right Fine Gael.
While republicans are ecstatic at the massive publicity and propaganda which the Easter Rising centenary will generate, there is still bad blood in the Republic about the long-term impact of the Irish civil war. While partition in the early 1920 secured independence for 26 of the island’s 32 counties, the acceptance of the treaty that divided the island politically also fragmented the Sinn Fein movement which had been united since its formation in 1905. The pro and anti-treaty factions indulged in a bloody conflict which saw more IRA members executed by the pro-treaty Free State Army than were killed by the notorious Black and Tans British militia in the earlier war of independence. The IRA lost the civil war and was reduced to a fringe status.
Now Gerry Adams’ decision to become a TD (MP) in Dublin’s Leinster House parliament has breathed new life into his party. From a handful of the 166 TDs, Adams now has a working base of just over a dozen. Campaigning on an anti-austerity ticket, Sinn Fein should easily break through the 20-seat mark – and may even secure between 30 and 40 TDs; a result which could gain Adams the coveted Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) post.
But Sinn Fein may have been damage by the report from Northern Ireland security forces that suggested the IRA’s ruling Army Council still existed and that it also held sway over Sinn Fein.
So rival parties in the Irish Republic may consider a coalition government with anyone other than Sinn Fein. Could even traditional opponents Fine Gael and the centre-left Fianna Fail form an administration simply to keep out Sinn Fein? This would curtail Sinn Fein’s aim to mark 2016 by being part of governments on both sides of the Irish border. The party is already part of the power-sharing Executive with the Democratic Unionists in the Stormont Assembly.
Ironically, one of the organisations which could cause Sinn Fein the most damage in the Dail election is the exclusively Protestant Orange Order, especially in the four main border counties – Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim and Donegal. For years after partition, the Protestant population in the Republic declined rapidly, but in recent years Protestantism has been making a comeback. While not every Protestant would be an Orange supporter, the Order has a considerable membership in the four border counties and hosts one of the biggest annual demonstrations to mark the Battle of the Boyne.
If the Orange Order managed to mobilise Protestant voters to vote tactically to keep Sinn Fein candidates out, it could have a significant impact on Sinn Fein’s final tally of TDs, given that much of the party’s support can be found among republicans in these four border counties with Northern Ireland.
Ideally, Sinn Fein would like to be in a coalition with Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. But if that proves to be an impossibility, could Sinn Fein form a rainbow alliance of Independent TDs, Irish Labour and any other smaller parties? Such an alliance is a long shot, but it could reduce Enda Kenny’s majority to a handful.
One thing is certain: parties in the Irish Republic will have to recognise Sinn Fein’s mandate in the same way that Unionists have had to deal with Sin Fein at Stormont.