The centenary of Irish partition in two years could see Sinn Fein in government on both sides of the border, but the initial problem which the republican movement has to solve is - how does it get Mary Lou McDonald into the Taoiseach’s office?
Sinn Fein began the Dail battle defending 20 plus seats, and ended up winning 37 - one less than Fianna Fail and two more than Fine Gael. If only Sinn Fein had run more than 42 candidates, Mary Lou would definitely be gracing the Taoiseach’s office in Leinster House.
The problem for the establishment parties is that their combined total of TDs only comes to 73 (FF+FG); that’s still seven short of the 80 needed for an overall Dail majority.
On paper, the outcome for the next coalition government should be simple - the two largest parties, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, should form the government giving them a combined tally of 75 TDs; throw in a few of the 19 Independent TDs and the 33rd Dail is stable enough.
Sounds good, except for one major stumbling block - who is prepared to climb into bed politically with Sinn Fein, the one-time apologist of the Provisional IRA, following the dramatic outcome of the Irish Republic’s election to form the 33rd Dail?
Its one thing for Southern politicians and parties to lecture Northern Ireland parties about the need to do business with Sinn Fein in the Stormont Assembly; its another thing when you have to do business outside your own front door!
That’s the key question which both the traditional and smaller Southern Irish parties are asking after the so-called ‘Sinn Fein Surge’ which has shattered decades of two-party rule in the Republic.
Now if I was a member of the IRA’s ruling Army Council and wanted to instruct Mary Lou and her Dail team what to do next, the answer would be simple; cause enough political chaos to create a second Dail election, and this time run enough candidates to ensure Mary Lou is guaranteed the Taoiseach’s position.
Under the current arrangement, where could Mary Lou get her TD tally from. She could hope that either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael breaks with tradition, goes into coalition with Sinn Fein, and she gets the Tanaiste post.
Or, she could try and form a coalition of the Broad Left, which although a cumbersome ‘rainbow’ arrangement, would at least get her into the Taoiseach’s office.
For this to work, Mary Lou will require her own 37 TDs; six apiece from Labour and the Social Democrats; the five Solidarity/People Before Profit hard Left TDs; the 12 TDs from the Greens and the vast majority of the 19 Independent TDs to take her over the 80-seat mark, assuming the staunchly pro-life Aontu TD snubs her.
If these sums add up politically - and work pragmatically - it would give Mary Lou, at best, a working tally of 85 TDs, confining both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to the opposition benches.
Even then, her major problem is delivering on election promises. The South may be ready for change, but is it ready for a dose of Marxist economics? This is supposed to be modern Ireland, not the old communist East Germany.
However, unlike December’s Westminster General Election, the Southern Irish counterpart was not directly Brexit-related. Indeed, the fact that the outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tried to make Brexit a key issue backfired badly on his Fine Gael party.
This Sinn Fein surge even took the republican movement by surprise. Formed in 1905, for generations the ‘party’ was always viewed as the political apologist for the terrorist actions of the IRA.
While that was the case in 1920, in 2020 Sinn Fein heavily targeted a young populace who are not concerned with the party’s past links to IRA violence through the broad republican movement.
Long gone are the days when to be a high profile Sinn Fein candidate, you had to have served an apprenticeship in the IRA. Sinn Fein 2020 mobilised a first time voter base with a simple propaganda message - if you want to protest at how the establishment has treated you over housing, then vote Sinn Fein !
Instead of either of the two centre Right parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail forming a government, the fallout from the February general election has now created a ‘three-party’ system in Dublin’s Leinster House.
This has been Sinn Fein’s best general election result since 1918 when it took over 70 of the 105 Irish seats at Westminster when Ireland was entirely under British rule.
Sinn Fein entered this election on the backfoot, and certainly on the defensive, with former West Belfast MP, Louth TD and ex-Shinner president Gerry Adams having built the Sinn Fein tally to just over 20 seats in the 160-seat Dail, where 80 TDs (MPs) are needed to form a majority (the speaker does not vote).
The surge for Sinn Fein is a surprise given the movement’s recent election disasters in the Southern local government elections, European election and December’s Westminster election where it lost considerable ground.
As the count progressed, even with only a few seats still to declare, Sinn Fein was predicted to almost double its TD tally, making it a strong contender for a coalition government partnership - but always that nagging question loomed - with whom?
But the numbers are not as yet stacking up for Sinn Fein to even form a minority government. There will need to be a coalition government as none of the now ‘Big Three’ has enough TDs - unlike Boris Johnston at Westminster - to form a majority government.
There could have to be compromises, but who will blink first? It will either be a joint Fianna Fail/Fine Gael partnership to keep Sinn Fein out, or most likely, Fianna Fail will reach an accommodation with Sinn Fein pushing Fine Gael into those opposition benches.
But whatever the outcome, the question of Irish unity and a border poll is now pushed heavily up the political agenda. The Sinn Fein surge can be attributed to two main factors - Sinn Fein targeted the youth vote and first time voters for whom IRA atrocities during the Troubles are now merely dates in history books.
Secondly, Sinn Fein became the vehicle of protest against the existing ‘two party’ Fianna Fail/Fine Gael establishment, with Sinn Fein’s heavy focus on health, housing, and homelessness in the Republic. Sinn Fein clearly dodged the Brexit bullet.
The hesitation from traditional parties to jump into bed politically with Sinn Fein is based on three key factors - the party’s past links with the IRA; the hard left ideology of Sinn Fein, and the fact that Sinn Fein collapsed the power-sharing Stormont Executive in January 2017, fuelling the perception - would Sinn Fein collapse the 33rd Dail if it didn’t get its way?
But, as with the days of the Troubles, is Sinn Fein going to face the same dilemma as the Provisional IRA faced? Just as the IRA had a Northern Command and Southern Command, will we now see the emergence of a so-called Southern Sinn Fein compared to a radically different Northern Sinn Fein?
And given the influence of the IRA Army Council on the broad republican movement, will that Army Council have to give separate autonomies to the IRA’s Northern and Southern Commands?
With academic predictions now an accurate reality in reflecting what that final tally of TDs is, then it can already be suggested that both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael ran too many candidates, while Sinn Fein has underestimated the number of candidates required - and ran too few.
Already one dangerous trend is emerging. Just as Sinn Fein sparked the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive, heralding in a three-year political stagnation period in the Province, could the presence of an increased number of Sinn Fein TDs in the Dail make the possibility of a stable coalition government so precarious that another snap Dail General Election is inevitable later this year?
This allows pro-Union pundits to pose the blunt question - is Sinn Fein only playing at politics given its volatile stereotype, or is it possible that this part of the republican movement (Sinn Fein) has the maturity and responsibility to mature into a stable, democratic party?
In the South, it is very clear Sinn Fein has managed to rebrand itself as the party of protest; the part of anti-austerity, the party of the youth. In the North, Sinn Fein is the unapologetic voice of the republican movement.
Northern Sinn Fein has been able to eat into traditional moderate nationalist, middle class Catholic voter areas, whilst retaining its hard core support in solid working class republican heartlands, with the Foyle Westminster disaster in December 2019 being the obvious exception to the rule.
In the Republic, Southern Sinn Fein has targeted the youth voter, especially the first time voters for whom the IRA and the Northern Ireland Troubles are merely abbreviations and dates in history. The IRA slaughter at Claudy, Teebane, Kingsmill, Tullyvallen and La Mon mean little to teenage first-time voters in the South.
Sinn Fein has successfully pushed the propaganda that if they want to give the ‘two-fingered salute’ to the Leinster Home establishment and the Southern elite, then Sinn Fein is the best party to use that protest - and it has worked.
In Northern Ireland, while the new Stormont deal looks stable enough on paper, in reality could it all fall apart later this year over the legacy issue and especially an Historical Investigations/Inquiries Unit? Indeed, could there still be such a rebellion amongst the Unionist grassroots that the implementation of Irish Language legislation be a deal breaker?
After all, if the Rev Ian Paisley party (DUP) can run a power-sharing Executive at Parliament Buildings in Stormont with Sinn Fein, why can’t the same deal be reached in the Republic?
If all the Southern parties agree a coalition agreement of ‘anyone but the Shinners (the nickname attributed to the party by its opponents)’, how stable does that make the 33rd Dail?
And with the Northern security forces hammering out virtually weekly warnings about the threat from dissident republicans - especially over the recent Brexit Bomb by the Continuity IRA - will Southern Sinn Fein take a more liberal stance on dissident republicans compared to Northern Sinn Fein?
Has Sinn Fein the political discipline to run two separate parties in Ireland, or would the Northern Sinn Fein/Southern Sinn Fein experiment eventually run aground. Could we have a situation whereby Southern Sinn Fein moans daily about austerity cuts in the Republic, while Northern Sinn Fein implements such cuts in Northern Ireland?
No doubt, Sinn Fein would love to be in government in both Stormont and Leinster House come the centenary of partition in Ireland. The real elephant in the political room remains, if Southern parties allow Sinn Fein to coalition in the 33rd Dail as a result of its mandate, would it signal a green light to an already uneasy dissident loyalist movement?
If Sinn Fein does join a Southern coalition government, Irish politics could witness a Sinn Fein Dail Foreign Minister talking to a Sinn Fein Stormont deputy First Minister at the British Irish Ministerial Council about future political arrangements for the island of Ireland!
The concept of Sinn Fein talking to itself may be a jibe; but that jibe could soon become a political reality.
Just picture Foreign Minister Pearse Doherty TD discussing with deputy First Minster Michelle O’Neill MLA the wording of the all-island unity referendum whilst being advised by North Belfast Westminster MP John Finucane?