Sinn Fein is one of Ireland’s oldest political parties. And after a long spell in the electoral wilderness they are about to taste power, possibly on both sides of the border. As the largest Nationalist party in Northern Ireland, they are expected to take part in power sharing in the Northern Irish assembly in 2007. And now pundits are speculating on the possibility they may be involved in a coalition south of the border after the Republic’s election in 2007.
Current Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern has consistently stated that his Fianna Fail party will not negotiate with Sinn Fein due to their continued links with the IRA. However if the Northern Irish power sharing arrangement holds and the election south of the border produces a hung parliament, then Ahern may be forced to rethink his options. Before Sinn Fein can consider its options in Dublin, it will firstly be concentrating on the Northern Ireland assembly elections to be held on 7 March 2007. That election is part of the St. Andrew's Agreement, published last month by Blair and Ahern to revive power sharing in Northern Ireland.
But there is no guarantee the north’s power sharing is going to go ahead. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader and proposed First Minister Ian Paisley is insisting that Sinn Fein issue a pledge of support for policing and for law and order is in place before then. BBC Northern Ireland political editor Mark Devenport said: "The DUP want Martin McGuinness to swear to support law and order and the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) when he is nominated as deputy first minister. However Sinn Fein has so far resisted the pledge until they hold a special party conference to decide their policing policy.
The power sharing arrangement is not without risk for Paisley and the DUP either. Two weeks ago, Ian Paisley said that if all his conditions were fulfilled he would accept the first minister's post after the March election. But he will have to work with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness who was nominated as his deputy. Not everyone in the loyalist movement is happy about this. Last week uber-Loyalist Michael Stone of the Ulster Freedom Fighters launched an attack on the parliament buildings at Stormont but was foiled by security guards. Stone turned up with a replica pistol and explosive devices with the intention of assassinating McGuinness and Sinn Fein party leader Gerry Adams while they were in the assembly with Paisley. Stone has now been charged with attempted murder. In 1988, Stone killed three mourners at an IRA funeral and served 11 years in prison.
The Northern Ireland assembly is a legacy of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. However the assembly was suspended in 2002 after serious disagreement between the loyalist and nationalist parties. The 2006 negotiations in the Scottish town of St. Andrews centred on the refusal of Sinn Fein to support policing in the province and the Democratic Unionist Party's opposition to joining a power- sharing local government. On 16 November Westminster passed a Northern Ireland bill requiring those elected to the assembly to pledge support for policing and courts in the province. The parties are now in Stormont for a transitional assembly which will wrap up on 30 January prior to the March election.
After these elections are complete, Sinn Fein can turn its attention to the South. There they currently only attract 7% of the vote but that may be enough to be a factor in the next election. Fianna Fail currently rules in coalition with the right-wing Progressive Democrats. Their new leader and Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Michael McDowell is an implacable foe of Sinn Fein. He has linked Sinn Fein to criminality in Belfast, including the massive Northern Bank heist two years ago and the murder of Robert McCartney. However with the PD’s polling at 4%, Sinn Fein may prove a more attractive coalition partner after the next election.