Episode 15: Sinn Féin changes the maths
It’s that time, now traditional – traditional since 2010, anyway – when the general election is so close that people start to speculate/fantasise about a possible role for Sinn Féin in the electoral aftermath. The important role they’re most likely to play is not being there. There are 650 seats in Parliament, so the winning line is 326: that’s the number which gives a party an absolute majority. The presence, or rather absence, of Sinn Féin changes that. The Shinners, as they’re known in Ireland, currently hold five seats, and are on course to hold them all. But the Shinners don’t actually come to Westminster to take up those seats, because they won’t take the oath of loyalty to the crown. This changes the maths: 650 minus five is 645, so the real winning line is 323. Given how tight this election is, that could make the difference between Cameron being able to bodge together a minority government, and not.
In Ireland, it’s been known for a long time that Sinn Féin have their eyes on 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Elections are due next year for both the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Dáil Éireann. The Shinners have been doing well on both sides of the border, in the North as the second-biggest party and sometime party of government, and in the Republic as an anti-austerity protest party who are currently tied for second in the polls. It is possible – not likely but distinctly possible – that the centenary of the Easter Rising could see the political wing of the IRA as the biggest party in both parts of Ireland. It could even be in government in one or both jurisdictions. All this is looked on with excitement by the Shinners, and by everybody else with variations on the theme of horror.
What gives the electoral situation a twist, though, is the possibility that as well as being in power on both sides of the Irish border, 2016 could also see Sinn Féin holding the balance of power in Westminster. Now that really would be baroque. The temptation would be to commemorate the Rising by triggering a vote of no confidence and bringing down the UK government. To do that, of course, the Shinners would have to come to London. At this very moment, somewhere, a Sinn Féin Parliamentary candidate is quietly Googling the rules to see if it’s OK to take the oath of loyalty with fingers crossed behind your back and a clothes-peg on the nose.