Sinn Fein assessing coalition options

Sinn Fein is working to establish the viability of a left-wing coalition government in Ireland.

In the wake of a stunning election result, leader Mary Lou McDonald is engaging with smaller parties and a range of independent TDs to see if she has the numbers to assemble a workable administration.

It remains highly doubtful Ms McDonald can garner enough partners to reach the magic number of 80 TDs to command a majority in the Dail parliament.

Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill
Mary Lou McDonald addresses the media in Dublin, as Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill looks on (Niall Carson/PA)

But if she did pull it off it would represent a landmark moment for the state, as it would be the first time in more than 90 years when either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael was not in power.

Smaller parties and groupings such as the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats and Solidarity/People Before Profit, and a sizeable number of independent TDs, are all set to be courted by Mrs McDonald as she seeks junior coalition partners.

Many believe it will be impossible to form a government without the involvement of one of either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, the two long-time big beasts of Irish politics.

This election has been seismic & historic, and has been driven by the demand for change by the people #GE2020pic.twitter.com/zUcjB0bpud

— Sinn Féin (@sinnfeinireland) February 10, 2020

A coalition of Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and the Green Party – which ended with 12 seats – is seen as a potentially more realistic option.

Fianna Fail emerged from the election as the largest party by the narrowest margin over the surging Sinn Fein.

Micheal Martin’s party finished with 38 seats to Sinn Fein’s 37 at the end of two days of counting.

But given the Fianna Fail speaker was re-elected without contest, both parties essentially “won” the same number of seats.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael was the big loser, recording the second-worst result in its history, winning only 35 seats having entered the campaign as the largest party on 47.

Despite being edged in seat numbers, Sinn Fein is undoubtedly the party with most to celebrate, having smashed Ireland’s long-standing two-party system.

Mary Lou McDonald’s party triumphed in the popular vote and may have won many more seats – potentially an additional 11 – if it had fielded more candidates in the landmark contest.

As such, momentum is behind her in taking the first steps in what could be a long and tortuous process to form a new government.

She has predicted she could be Ireland’s next taoiseach.

General Election Ireland 2020
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has edged Sinn Fein as the largest party (Yui Mok/PA)

Newly-elected Sinn Fein TD for Cavan and Monaghan Matt Carthy acknowledged that if would be difficult to reach 80 seats.

“The numbers of that are going to be tight,” he told RTE’s Morning Ireland.

“But we have an obligation, and Mary Lou McDonald has already set this in train, to talk to the progressive parties that were clearly part of the mandate for change.”

Despite receiving the most first preference votes, Sinn Fein’s place in the next government is not guaranteed.

All three major parties are far short of the 80 seats required for a majority so, barring another election, some form of coalition is inevitable.

Either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael may be forced to back-track on long-standing pledges never to do business with Sinn Fein.

There appear to be differing views within Fianna Fail, with some members remaining opposed to any alliance with Sinn Fein and others more open to the prospect.

Mr Varadkar has maintained his pre-election stance and ruled out any Fine Gael/Sinn Fein coalition.

General Election Ireland 2020
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar oversaw Fine Gael’s second-worst election performance in it history (Liam McBurney/PA).

Another permutation could see the exclusion of Sinn Fein, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail entering power together in a so-called “grand coalition” with another smaller party or grouping – though that prospect looks increasingly unlikely.

Sinn Fein received 24.5% of the vote share on first preference in Saturday’s election, Fianna Fail got 22.2% and Fine Gael 20.9%.

The final breakdown of the 160 seats was Fianna Fail 38, Sinn Fein 37, Fine Gael 35, Greens 12, Labour 6, Social Democrats 6, Solidarity/People Before Profit 5, Aontu 1, Independents4Change 1 and independents 19.

Mr Varadkar’s last government, a minority Fine Gael-led administration that included several independent TDs, was sustained in power through a historic confidence and supply arrangement with Fianna Fail.

That pact between two parties founded from opposing sides of Ireland’s civil war of the 1920s took 70 days to negotiate following the inconclusive 2016 general election.

It looks unlikely that either party will countenance a similar arrangement this time round.

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