Last Friday was one of those days. It started in Dublin with the election of a Taoiseach and finished at the Assembly count centre in the Titanic quarter in east Belfast with four Sinn Féin MLAs returned for west Belfast.
The Dáil met at noon to decide the fate of Enda Kenny and his government. It was 70 days to the day that the electorate had passed their judgement on the Fine Gael and Labour government. They were stripped of their mandate to govern. In the intervening months Fianna Fáil wasted weeks in a cynical charade to form the next government. This little sham process was really about Fianna Fáil trying to inflate their status as the main opposition party and the alternative government in waiting.
After more weeks of interminable negotiations Fianna Fáil finally abstained from the vote for Taoiseach while a number of former independents – who had sought votes in the general election on the basis that they wanted to get rid of Fine Gael – u-turned on that commitment. They moved from being independents to becoming ‘Endapendents’ – supporting Enda Kenny for Taoiseach.
In his Dáil remarks the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin spent a tediously long time desperately trying to convince the Fianna Fáil faithful why they were about to put Enda Kenny back into office as Taoiseach. His spin claimed that their party had just won a great victory and forced Fine Gael to adopt Fianna Fáil policies.
It was typical Fianna Fáil strategy. In the years it was in government its TDs frequently railed against government policies. This allowed them to be in and out of government at the same time. In his remarks Martin claimed that the “election represented an overwhelming rejection of the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government, its policies and its hyper-political behaviour…”
The Fianna Fáil leader went on to accuse Fine Gael of being “committed to the idea that the outgoing Government's policies were correct ...“
If Teachta Martin were to follow the logic of his criticism of Fine Gael, then he should have voted against Enda Kenny for Taoiseach.
It all sounds very complicated and not very stable or durable. In effect Fine Gael has handed Fianna Fáil the ability to pull the government down at a time that suits that party. Of course there is always the possibility of this government lasting a full term or close to it. Nobody knows But for now we have a coalition government led by Fine Gael aided and abetted by its new partners in Fianna Fáil and some of the so-called Independents. Fianna Fáil is a semi-detached partner with no substantive policy differences between the two conservative parties.
Worse, the price Fianna Fáil extracted from Fine Gael for this arrangement leave us with Irish Water intact, charges merely suspended, no new initiative to tackle the crisis in housing - no new money to tackle poverty and deprivation and a health service in chaos. Together with those independents who backed Enda Kenny Taoiseach their joint programme for government is a master class in waffle and bluster. It has no real ambition, no big ideas, no costings, little real detail. Never was so much negotiated for so long for so little. There are a few miserly lines, not even a section on health, which say the "humane approach" for the revision of medical card provision should be maintained. What "humane approach"?
At the end of this farce there is one certainty. Sinn Féin is the lead opposition party in the Dáil and we intend enthusiastically and energetically challenging the government parties on their bad policies.
In the north the Assembly election saw the percentage share of the vote of all of the parties drop. Unusually, the drop in the nationalist vote was marginally greater. The result in Assembly seats saw no change for the DUP and UUP, although this fell short of UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt’s predicted three additional seats. The expected Jim Allister challenge was seen off by a DUP which effectively used the ‘fear’ of Martin McGuinness as a possible First Minister to mobilise its vote.
The election also witnessed a further damaging decline in votes and seats for the SDLP. It’s now at its lowest level of support ever. Despite the barrage of criticism directed at Sinn Féin we returned with 28 seats. One seat was lost due to poor vote management in Fermanagh south Tyrone where we took over 40% of the vote. A shift by some voters in west Belfast and Derry away from the SDLP and Sinn Féin benefited the two People Before Profit candidates. Two Green Party MLAs were also elected in north and south Down.
The overall result is an endorsement of the Fresh Start Agreement and a rejection of the negativity of the smaller Executive parties.
There are also many positives for Sinn Féin emerging from these results, especially when one considers that the next Assembly election will see the number of Assembly seats in constituencies reduced to five.
In Upper Bann Sinn Féin took a second seat with the election of Catherine Seeley. In East Derry we were only a couple of hundred votes away from taking a second seat. In Mid Ulster our three candidates were returned on the first count, including two high profile women - Michelle O’Neill and Linda Dillon. And in West Tyrone there was another strong result with the party winning three seats. Significantly in South Down we closed the gap with the SDLP to within 200 votes.
All in all the Assembly elections saw a strong performance by Sinn Féin. Of course, the decline in the overall nationalist vote needs closely examined and policy and organisational measures taken to address this. Is it because in the minds of some we were associated with the British government’s austerity policies? Has it to do with the constant crises in the Assembly and Executive? The growth in the PBP vote in two constituencies with strong anti-Sinn Féin dissident elements also needs close examination.
Finally, I want to thank everyone who voted for our party. I also want to thank all of the Sinn Féin candidates who worked very hard during a long election campaign; and their families.
Along with our colleagues who were recently elected to the Dáil and the Seanad we pledge to continue our efforts in the time ahead to ensure that real solutions are found to the problems affecting our communities, ending divisions and uniting the people of Ireland.