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Fianna Fáil needs to ask itself an uncomfortable question: can it do business with Sinn Féin?

If Micheál Martin sticks around, the party needs to prepare for all eventualities from the general election.

THE MOOD WAS different at this year’s Fianna Fáil party think-in this week, but there were still some big ticket questions doing the rounds.

Will Micheál Martin stay or will he go? Will his head be turned by a big job in Europe and what’s his long-term plan?

But there was another question in the air too – one that Fianna Fáil has been too scared to ask itself but one that will need to be answered.

If push comes to shove, and the numbers after the next general election leave no alternative, will Fianna Fáil be open to going into coalition with Sinn Féin?

All these questions have to be answered, and answered quickly if the party is to know where it is headed.

Positivity, optimism, and a touch of eagerness. That’s what was in the air at the Horse and Jockey Hotel in Tipperary over the last two days. 

There was definitely a different vibe than previous years. In 2021, there was tension in the air at the Slieve Russell Hotel in Cavan where the parliamentary party meeting was held.

It felt like Micheál Martin was hanging on by a thread and the party was close to implosion.

That year criticism was levelled at Martin, the then Taoiseach, where he was told the party was being used as a doormat by Fine Gael. There were long discussions, and the meeting was described by many as “cathartic”

tanaiste-micheal-martin-centre-with-fianna-fail-colleagues-before-a-fianna-fail-party-event-at-the-horse-and-jockey-hotel-in-thurles-co-tipperary-picture-date-monday-september-11-2023 Alamy Stock Photo Fianna Fáil family photo at the party think-in in Tipperary this week. Alamy Stock Photo

Fast forward two years, and perhaps the air has been cleared. 

Will he stay or will he go?

The Fianna Fáil leader was asked on Monday if he would lead his party into the next general election. He replied: “Yes I will be. Absolutely.” 

Okay, he’s said this before, many times. But the answer this time felt genuine.

At this year’s party think-in in Tipperary, unlike other years, there wasn’t the same tension in the air about Martin’s future. Any chatter of a mini-heave against him has long since dissipated.

One TD suggested that perhaps Martin seemed relaxed because he has decided to head off to Europe. But that view was in the minority among those The Journal canvassed over the two days.

Martin has previously ruled himself out of taking up a European Commissioner role next year. But the option is there for him to become the next Irish commissioner, as Fianna Fáil is entitled to the post as part of the coalition deal.

The job would be there for the taking, if it takes his fancy. However, speaking to The Journal, Fianna Fáilers didn’t get the sense that Martin was going anywhere. 

“No way,” said one minister, who said that Martin was showing a huge interest in the upcoming local and European elections, as well as trends ahead of the next general election.

“You don’t put in that level of effort if you have decided you are going to step away as leader,” they said. 

Others suggest that there was a feeling a few months ago that Martin was tempted to go to Europe, but that something had changed since.

They described how it would almost feel like Martin would be abandoning the party if he chose to go next year, that it would be viewed as a slight by party members, and something that would not go down well in terms of Martin’s legacy within the party. 

These sources were categorical that they did not believe he is going anywhere.

Others described the energy that Martin was showing.

His enthusiasm was being remarked upon over the last couple of days, while comparisons were also being made between the Fianna Fáil leader and his counterpart in Fine Gael. Many  stated that Martin had got his mojo back while Leo Varadkar appears to have lost his. 

The Journal asked Martin on Tuesday whether he had a five-year or ten-year plan for his future.

Laughing, the Fianna Fáil leader said he didn’t do five-year plans, and joked about his recent venture into being a podcast host. 

He said he was enjoying being in politics, stating: “I’m committed to it from a public service perspective. There are issues that still need to be resolved in this country.”

Those in public life have to stay focused on the needs of the people, he said. He added that we’re living in a very challenging world right now, citing the recent pandemic, the challenges of Brexit, and the war in Ukraine too.

Martin said he was still interested in and committed to dealing with those issues, stating that he wanted to see what contribution he could make to help “people in this country to meet those challenges”.   

November 2024

When is the next general election? Well, the majority of Fianna Fáilers told The Journal that November 2024 is the date to put in the diary.

Wait any longer and it would finish us, said one minister. Get a good budget done in September or October 2024, get the Finance Bill through quick and go to the people.

tanaiste-micheal-martin-right-with-minister-for-finance-michael-mcgrath-speaking-to-the-media-outside-the-horse-and-jockey-hotel-in-thurles-co-tipperary-during-an-fianna-fail-party-event-picture Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Moving on to the other question. The one that Fianna Fáilers will possibly have to grapple with – can they do business with Sinn Féin? 

If Martin isn’t going anywhere, and he does lead the party through the next general election, he’s going to have to deal with the issue. 

But any mention of Sinn Féin at the party think-in over the last two days resulted in tetchy exchanges between Martin and the media. 

Tetchy exchanges regarding Sinn Féin

The Tánaiste accused the media of cheerleading Sinn Féin ahead of the next election. Responding to questions from The Journal about whether his position was softening towards going in with Sinn Féin, he said: 

“You guys need to stop cheerleading them on … We don’t do coronations in Ireland.”

Martin said there is “huge incompatibility” between his party and Sinn Féin.

He said Sinn Féin has been “very slow to bring closure to many victims of Provisional IRA violence”. 

“It reminds us of the need for Sinn Féin not to triumphalise the horrible deeds they did.

“They still try to triumphalise it, they still try to justify it. The problem with that is that you’re infecting a new generation of young people,” he said on Monday.

This remark was later criticised by Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin who called it “desperate”. Martin said Ó Broin would say that and got edgy when he was questioned further on Tuesday about his position regarding Sinn Féin. 

The Fianna Fáil leader said that Sinn Féin getting into power next time around wasn’t a “slam dunk” or a sure thing.

He’s correct. No one knows what the result of the next general election will be. Polls are indeed a snapshot in time, and have been often wrong in the past.

Many within Fianna Fáil believe that Sinn Féin’s high poll ratings won’t materialise when people have to put their vote into the ballot box. 

Regardless of all of that, there is still a need to be prepared, for all eventualities. 

Divided party

One minister said that the party is split down the middle on the issue.

“Fifty per cent of the party would find going in with Sinn Féin as extremely difficult. The other half would have done it the last time around,” they said. 

While the majority feel November 2024 is the date for the next election, they pointed out that things can change pretty quickly in politics and that very question about a coalition with Sinn Féin could be foisted upon them quicker than they expected. 

In the same breath, concerns were also raised about the lack of preparedness for a general election.

Some noted the lack of a rolling manifesto for the party.

Others questioned why recommendations from a special commission, which was headed up by Kildare TD James Lawless, and that was tasked with reviewing how the party must change if it is to modernise and grow support into the future, have not been built upon. 

But it was the genuine unease on the faces of Fianna Fáilers when asked to contemplate the prospect of going into coalition with Sinn Féin that stood out.

Many cited how such a coalition wouldn’t actually last very long as there is such a level of distrust between the two parties. 

One minister said there hasn’t been any real discussions within the party about what the party position would be if the option was there to go into government with Sinn Féin. 

TDs The Journal spoke to were of the view that an honest and frank discussion was needed on the issue. Some highlighted the case of the UK being bounced into Brexit as an example of the need to prepare for all election outcomes.

Can Fianna Fáil work with Sinn Féin?

It’s clearly a very uncomfortable consideration for those that were at the think-in this week. The party needs to come up with a position. Uncomfortable or not, that conversation needs to be had. 

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