12 Apr 2018

2018 has been a tumultuous year in politics thus far,  with the aftermath of the former Tánaiste’s resignation continuing to reverberate, Brexit negotiations rumbling on, Leo’s rare media misstep in Washington and the debate around the 8th amendment ongoing.

However, one must not forget the retirement of Gerry Adams, one of the world’s longest-serving political leaders and a figurehead of republicanism during a troubling period in Ireland, who stepped down as President of Sinn Fein in February 2018, signalling the dawn of a new era in Irish politics.

Whilst Sinn Féin may not be in power, and are not even the largest opposition party, their relevance cannot be ignored. It remains a leading party in the North and has several formidable players in the South, most pertinently their new president, Deputy Mary Lou McDonald. And while they may not be leading the polls in the South, they are making ground. In fact, the January MRBI Irish Times opinion poll showed that among 25-34-year olds Sinn Féin is the second largest party with 26%, with Fianna Fáil trailing behind at only 17%. So, while the ‘old guard’ of Fianna Fáil is dying, the new age of Sinn Féin is lying in wait.

The Rise of Deputy Mary Lou McDonald

McDonald undoubtedly appeals to a broader republican audience, coming from a middle-class family in Dublin. She is respected for her ability to debate, and her knowledge of key issues is second to none. In particular, McDonald’s recent appearance on the Late Late Show won favour with wider audiences for the manner in which she dealt with Ryan Tubridy. In contrast to Adams’ awkward engagement with the media and his often-poor grasp of the nuance of policy, this style of performance is a trademark of McDonald, who is formidable but often manages to gain the respect of her audience, even those traditionally apathetic to the party.

Another selling point for the ‘new’ Sinn Féin under McDonald is the lack of direct association with the ‘Troubles’ in the North. Many commentators claim it was this issue what was holding back Sinn Féin in the South. The relentless attacks from their counterparts in Dáil Éireann for Adams’ association with the IRA made many people, including the crucial middle class, uneasy about voting for the party.

But with Adams and Deputy Martin Ferris retiring, Dessie Ellis will be the only remaining Sinn Féin TD with an IRA prisoner background. Even though her political opponents, and at times the media, still try to link McDonald to the IRA, with ongoing references to her attending commemorations and using republicanism language such as ‘Tiocfaidh ár Lá’, her name is undoubtedly less connected to Sinn Féin’s past. Now with McDonald in charge, the Opposition will have to focus more on direct engagement on policy matters, rather than just cheap shots about the party’s history.

McDonald’s more clean-cut image is also evident by online references and social media postings, where often peoples’ true opinions of politicians emerge. Words and conversations associated with her leadership seem to focus on the key words ‘Sinn Féin’, ‘Dublin’, ‘Presidency’ and ‘Dáil Éireann’. Adams, in contrast, found it hard to shake social media postings and mentions of his association with the Troubles. This was also not helped by his sometimes questionable and downright bizarre social media content policy.

Is Sinn Fein good for business?

Within the walls of Leinster House, there is near-unanimous agreement that while McDonald’s style may be different, her leadership will emphasise continuity, not radical change. It is expected that during media opportunities she will continue to state that her main objectives as leader are to achieve North-South unity and bring social justice to the Island of Ireland.

However, she cannot ignore economic, health or housing-related matters and will undoubtedly have slight differences of opinion on policy and party direction to her predecessor. Traditionally Sinn Féin receives harsh criticism for manifestos with tax policies that their opponents said acted as a disincentive for the middle class and entrepreneurs. These policies certainly lean further left and are more socialist in nature compared to the other main parties.

From the outset of her months in office, little can be determined. McDonald made the headlines for all the wrong reasons when she signed off on her inaugural speech as president with the infamous IRA slogan ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’. There have also been further bullying accusations in the party, with two party members suspended for the use of inappropriate language on social media. The party has faced further headaches with two TDs declining to support the party position in favour of repeal of the 8th Amendment.

As it stands, Sinn Féin’s current economic policies still focus on introducing a third rate of income tax for those who earn over €100,000, introducing a net wealth tax, increasing the tax take as a percentage of GDP, eliminating tax reliefs and renegotiating the deficit reduction goals to make more socially responsible budget decisions.

While these may be declared policies, it does not mean that these measures will be implemented if Sinn Féin were in Government. History shows all parties, both left and right, align closer to the centre in Western democracies while in power, and McDonald is pragmatic enough to understand this reality. After all, she floated the idea, later approved at Ard Fheis, that Sinn Fein would be open to coalition. Prior to this, Sinn Fein’s position was they would only go into a ‘left-led’ coalition, which was internally defined as a majority of SF and other left TDs. This means that business can take the above policies as the starting point for the party in any negotiations for Government and an indication of Sinn Féin’s political intent.

More broadly, the party is still derided by its opponents for indulging in ‘fantasy economics’. This level of scrutiny from their political opponents has made them a much tighter machine, with the party publishing costed manifestos and budget submissions. This has put the other parties on the back foot, with Fine Gael and Labour, when they were in Government, mistakenly stating that the fiscal space would be €12.1 billion over the five-year period from 2016 onwards. It was Sinn Féin who arrived at the correct figure of €8.6 billion, lending the party some much-needed economic credibility. It is also worth noting that the sting has been taken out of the term ‘fantasy economics’ somewhat since the recession, which witnessed all the major parties either being in charge when the crash occurred or taking the reins during harsh periods of austerity.

Alongside this, several Sinn Féin bills have made an impact in Leinster House. Legislation such as the Digital Safety Commissioner Bill, which was introduced by Sinn Féin’s Justice Spokesperson Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire or Finance Spokesperson Pearse Doherty’s work to merge the Financial Service Ombudsman and Pensions Ombudsman are both broadly seen as in line with mainstream thinking on their respective portfolios. While these measures may be impactful, they are not necessarily pro-business.

Broadly speaking, McDonald’s job is to put a new face on old policies. However, with an election looming, it will be interesting to see where she brings her party to on issues such as commercial rates, employment law, tax and the rising cost of doing business.

Another move to watch out for will be to see where McDonald aligns herself within the parliamentary party, with many commentators noting that she is more likely to be on the centre ground of the party alongside deputies Pearse Doherty and Peadar Tóibín rather than the more working class, left-leaning TDs like deputies Louise O’Reilly or David Cullinane.

For now, McDonald’s job is to convince the Party’s Ard Comhairle and, in particular, the Officer Board of her intentions. Different to other political parties, it is the Officer Board which really holds the whip, and which provides the political direction within Sinn Féin. In addition, true to Sinn Féin’s tradition, large decisions such as agreeing on the principals of any future coalition, will have to be cleared by the ‘ever’ staunch membership at the annual Party Ard Fheis.