Almost 20 Fianna Fáil TDs have said they would not rule out holding coalition talks with Sinn Féin after the next general election.
It comes after Taoiseach Micheál Martin appeared to soften his stance on the prospect of Fianna Fáil negotiating with Mary Lou McDonald’s party, suggesting it “may evolve depending on policy”.
While some party members expressed concerns about Sinn Féin’s policies, almost every Fianna Fáil TD who responded to queries from The Irish Times expressed a willingness to sit down with Sinn Féin after the next election.
Some TDs also said they believed the party made a mistake in not doing this after the 2020 general election.
Those who are open to the possibility include senior party members such as Jim O'Callaghan as well as Ministers of State Robert Troy and James Browne.
The Irish Times attempted to contact all 38 Fianna Fáil TDs on this issue and 19 responded.
In all, 17 TDs including Mr Martin indicated they were open to revising the party's approach to Sinn Féin.
The development marks something of a sea-change in Fianna Fáil’s stance exactly one year after a general election, where Mr Martin ruled out talks with Ms McDonald citing policy differences and because he didn’t consider Sinn Féin to be a normal political party.
One year later the picture has changed.
In an interview with The Irish Times for the Winter Nights Festival at the end of January Mr Martin was asked what his position was now and if the situation had evolved.
He said: “It may evolve depending on policy and policy content and how things develop.
“When I look into the future I am not going to be totally predicting what will and what will not happen.
“That said, at the moment, I think Sinn Féin’s policy platform on a range of issues would make it very difficult for us to coalesce with them.” He cited the economy, social matters and Sinn Féin’s attitude to the EU.
Mr Martin also said: “In future situations I think there will be far more flexibility all around but I think it will centre on policy and policy initiatives.”
Several other Fianna Fáil TDs have now expressed similar views.
Mr O’Callaghan, a TD for Dublin Bay South, said: “Fianna Fáil should neither rule in nor rule out any party for coalition purposes” after the next election. He said the party should fight the election on its own manifesto and record and, if successful, seek to form a government with “parties who have compatible policies”.
Another senior TD, Barry Cowen of Laois-Offaly, said he would “rule nothing out but it’ll be a matter to be considered down the road”. He said it was an “error” not to meet Sinn Féin after the last election.
He said it may not have led to government-formation talks but the public would have appreciated the option being explored.
Dublin South West TD John Lahart echoed the view that it was a mistake not to hold exploratory talks last year though he said he believed Sinn Féin would have rebuffed any Fianna Fáil overture.
He said that next time “if the necessity arises, we should not exclude anyone who is serious about forming a government”.
Minister of State for Trade Robert Troy said he believes the current coalition with Fine Gael and the Green Party is doing well and doesn't envisage an election for another four years.
He also said: “Any party with a democratic mandate deserves to be spoken with and I don’t think you should rule anybody out without at least talking to them.”
Minister of State for Justice James Browne also said what while Fianna Fáil should not be ruling out anyone for coalition, he would have “deep concern” about entering government with Sinn Féin in particular in relation to what he says are “their populist economic policies”.
Sligo-Leitrim TD Marc Mac Sharry, referring to the Taoiseach's recent comments to The Irish Times, said: "It is a crying shame that wasn't his position over the three years running into the last general election."
He said “the arithmetic” of the Dáil is a matter for the people and it’s “arrogant in the extreme” for parties to say they will “not do business with X, Y or Z”.
All TDs who offered their views to The Irish Times expressed various reservations about Sinn Féin from their economic policies to qualms about the party’s history but none ruled out the prospect of talks.
Just two TDs who responded – Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl and Cork South West’s Christopher O’Sullivan – did not offer a view. Another who did not want to be named was open to future talks with Sinn Féin.
Cavan-Monaghan TD Niamh Smyth and Cork East's James O'Connor both pointed to Fianna Fáil's hopes for a United Ireland as a shared goal with Sinn Féin.
Longford-Westmeath TD Joe Flaherty said "the political landscape has changed and there's an onus on all political parties to come to the table open minded".
James Lawless of Kildare North said: "I don't think there should be any historical or artificial barriers to working with any parties including Sinn Féin" but potential coalition partners must be compatible on core policy issues. He does have "serious reservations" about what he claimed was Sinn Féin's "ceaseless aggression online" and "absolute populism".
Dublin North West TD Paul McAuliffe suggested there was a long way to go before Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin could work together “on both sides” but added: “I don’t think you can ever rule it out. It’s for the people to decide.”
John McGuinness, a Carlow-Kilkenny TD, said he had qualms about Sinn Féin’s past but said the issue came down to “numbers”. If the election result suggests the make-up of a government should include both parties “you can’t ignore democracy”.
Former Fianna Fáil minister Willie O’Dea said he agreed with the Taoiseach’s view on the difficulty of working with Sinn Féin based on their current policies but also said it would be “very arrogant for anybody to rule anything definitively in or out for the future” .
Pádraig O’Sullivan of Cork North Central said forming a government was about policy rather than “a flat denial of doing business with anybody”.
Clare TD Cathal Crowe said there would need to be "some agreement on bedrock issues" with Sinn Féin but "at the outset it should not be a flat no, everything should be open to consideration".
Notwithstanding any softening in the stance towards Sinn Féin, the Taoiseach clashed with Ms McDonald and some of her TDs in the Dáil last week over issues of the past.
Sinn Féin TD Mairéad Farrell asked Mr Martin if he would meet Relatives for Justice and bereaved relatives of what she described as “the conflict”.
Mr Martin criticised her use of this term saying: “You generically call it ‘the conflict’ as if the Provisional IRA or the provisional movement had absolutely nothing to do with it. ‘People got killed by accident’ seems to be the assertion... but we know the reality.”
The road to any future coalition will be a bumpy one.
In their words
Taoiseach Micheál Martin – Cork South Central: The Taoiseach said Fianna Fáil's position on working with Sinn Féin "may evolve depending on policy and policy content and how things develop".
“When I look into the future, I am not going to be totally predicting what will and what will not happen. That said, at the moment, I think Sinn Féin’s policy platform on a range of issues would make it very difficult for us to coalesce with them.
"These are fundamental issues, economic and social issues, but particularly around enterprise and around also their attitude to the European Union which is not as fulsome or as supportive as one might think."
He also said that “in future situations I think there will be far more flexibility all around but I think it will centre on policy and policy initiatives”.
Jim O'Callaghan – Dublin Bay South: "My view is that at the next election Fianna Fáil should neither rule in nor rule out any party for coalition purposes. By ruling out a party we spend too much time talking about that party. Fianna Fáil should contest the next election on our own manifesto and record. If we are successful and receive sufficient support from the electorate, we should try to form a government with other parties who have compatible policies.
Barry Cowen – Laois-Offaly: "Rule nothing out but it'll be a matter to be considered down the road... based on my discussions with party members it was an error not to meet with Sinn Féin after the last election. It may not have led to any agreement about entering talks concerning government formation but the public would have appreciated the optics and recognition to explore potential options following the election."
John Lahart – Dublin South West: "If the necessity arises we should not exclude anyone who is serious about forming a government, however, we are talking about 2024. We ought to have spoken to them post-election last year. They would have said 'no' and that would have been important from a public perspective. I favoured a national government of the three largest parties, and said so, to put the national interest first and avoid the needless point scoring and grandstanding that we now are forced to endure."
Joe Flaherty – Longford-Westmeath: "No party has exclusivity on the right ideas or correct policy. Every political party needs to be realistic about getting into government. The political landscape has changed and there's an onus on all political parties to come to the table open minded and committed to agreeing a programme for government. Every party can and should add value to a government."
Minister of State for Justice James Browne – Wexford: "I don't believe we should be ruling out anyone for coalition, however, I would have deep concern about entering coalition with SF, in particular their populist economic policies. I would question whether they could make the necessary compromises that all coalitions require... It would be a big transition for a party that is economically populist and addicted to protesting."
James Lawless – Kildare North: "I don't think there should be any historical or artificial barriers to working with any parties including Sinn Féin." He said potential coalition partners must be compatible on core policy issues. He does have "serious reservations" about what he claimed were Sinn Féin's "ceaseless aggression online" and "absolute populism".
Marc Mac Sharry – Sligo-Leitrim: Referring to the Taoiseach's comments, he said: "It is a crying shame that wasn't his position over the three years running into the last general election." He said political parties had just one prerogative "to put forward their manifesto and their team and maximise their vote" and beyond that "the arithmetic" was a matter for the people. He said it was "arrogant in the extreme" for parties to say they would "not do business with X, Y or Z".
Paul McAuliffe – Dublin North West: "My view after any future election is it's about policies and working with people that you trust to deliver those policies." He suggested there was a long way to go before Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin could work together "on both sides". But he said: "I don't think you can ever rule it out. It's for the people to decide."
John McGuinness – Carlow-Kilkenny: Despite having qualms about Sinn Féin's past, he said the issue came down to "numbers". If the election result suggests the make-up of a government should include both parties "you can't ignore democracy" and "history will not be part of that thinking".
James O'Connor – Cork South East: The position on Sinn Féin was evolving and they had "important years" ahead "to prove they can perform in opposition in a responsible manner when it comes to the economy and some of their stances on the security of the State". But he said the main objective of Fianna Fáil was a United Ireland and suggested this may provide grounds for working with Sinn Féin in the future.
Willie O'Dea – Limerick City: He agreed with the Taoiseach's view on the difficulty of working with Sinn Féin based on their policy platform which he claimed would "drive the economy into the ground".
But he said parties “do change their policies” and it would be “very arrogant for anybody to rule anything definitively in or out for the future”.
Pádraig O'Sullivan – Cork North Central: Forming a Government was about policy rather than "a flat denial of doing business with anybody" and, ultimately, any decision would lie with Fianna Fáil's membership.
Niamh Smyth – Cavan-Monaghan: Although saying she was from a nationalist background herself, she added she was not in favour of "warfare or murder" for achieving political goals. She said she did want to see a United Ireland and she was "not adverse" to a future coalition with Sinn Féin and it would come down to policy and a programme for government.
Minister of State for Trade Robert Troy– Longford-Westmeath: He said he believes the current coalition with Fine Gael and the Green Party was doing well and didn't envisage an election for another four years. However, he said: "Any party with a democratic mandate deserves to be spoken with and I don't think you should rule anybody out without at least talking to them."
Cathal Crowe – Clare: "At the next election – which I believe is still several years away – all options should be open to consideration by Fianna Fáil... there does need to be some agreement on bedrock issues and that would have to be explored with Sinn Féin. At the outset, it should not be a flat no, everything should be open to consideration."
TD who did not want to be named: The TD suggested Mr Martin's remarks came after he had a year to reflect on "what cost him" up to 20 seats in the last general election. The TD said "there's no point in ruling anything in or out" adding that the "perceived wisdom" at the last election was the party shouldn't do a deal with Sinn Féin because it would mean losing the centre vote, adding "the centre vote went to Sinn Féin anyway".