When it comes to Government there are two kinds of political parties.
There are those who accept the status quo. Their policy agenda may involve some proposals for change. But these can be accommodated within the existing order of things.
Then there are those committed to something more profound. Their agenda can not be satisfied within the status quo. They want to replace the existing order of things with something radically different.
For the first group, government is about holding office and managing things more ‘competently’ than the others.
For the second group it is about wielding power to transform the social, economic and political fabric of society.
Sinn Féin is a party firmly in the second group. Ending partition and building a Ireland based on principles of economic equality and social justice is not possible within the existing status quo.
To replace the existing order of things with something better we need to be in Government. But in a political system where coalitions are the norm this raises big questions and even bigger challenges.
With who, to do what and when are the big questions that any party committed to advancing profound socio-economic and political change from within the parliamentary system must confront.
These questions are even more challenging for a mid-sized party like Sinn Féin who are seeking to increase our political strength and influence Government at the same time.
Unfortunately our debate is often too narrowly focused. We look back at the failures of Labour, the Greens or others when thinking through the pros and cons of coalition.
Since the 1970s a range of countries across Europe have elected governments committed to fundamental social, economic and political change. We ignore the lessons from these countries at our peril.
Harold Wilson’s 1974 victory brought Labour to power on a radical manifesto. The strength of the Bennite Left was evident in the promise to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy. Five years later Britain was in an IMF programme, the Labour Left was facing crushing defeat to be followed by two decades of Thatcherism.
Francois Mitterrand’s 1981 Socialist-Communist coalition in France may have lasted longer than his British counterparts but was no more successful in delivering fundamental change. Within 12 months of taking office and under intense pressure from the markets Mitterrand ditched his manifesto, replaced his Prime Minister and eventually lost Communist support. While he survived, his party retreated into the chimera of Social Europe while his junior coalition partner entered a period of sustained electoral decline.
The story of left coalitions in Italy from 1996, Sweden from 1998, Norway from 2005 and Iceland from 2009 all provide variants on a similar theme.
Widespread anger at economic mismanagement and political corruption brought progressive Governments to power on a promise of real change.That change was stymied both forces –domestic, EU and global- who benefited from the status quo. Delivery was contained or denied, disillusionment set it and the strongest advocates of change suffered electorally.
While the story of the current Greek government is not yet over it is hard to see Alexis Tsipras’s term of office ending in any other way that his European predecessors. The strength of EU and member state opposition to the political and economic challenge of Syriza in 2015 was such that the odds against Europes first truly radical left government were always stacked.
So the question for us back home is not whether we are better prepared or more cunning than Labour, the Greens or others on entry to Government, whether as a junior, co-equal or lead party.
It is whether we believe we can achieve here in Ireland, what all others who have gone before us in Europe, have failed to do.
Our ability to answer that question lies in part in the depth of our understanding of the failures of others, at home and abroad.
In the run up to each election Sinn Féin debates our electoral and political strategy and consider every option. We are serious about wanting to wield power and have no desire merely to hold office nor remain on the sidelines.
But I have yet to hear a convincing argument from anyone that the political, social and economic transformation that our country so desperately needs would be advanced by entering a coalition led by Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.
Enda Kenny’s flattering offer leaves me as cold as the prospect of Taoiseach Micheal Martin.
Bringing about an end to decades of conflict and Unionist domination in the North requires a mandatory coalition with political unionism in Stormont. But that is a world away from supporting a Government in Leinster House dominated by either of the South’s right wing partitionist parties.
Delivering profound political, social and economic change requires much more than a few seats around the cabinet table. It demands a popular and diverse social and political movement of which a progressive Government is a key element.
The Europe wide evidence against progressive parties participating in right wing Governments is overwhelming. It not only hurts the progressive party, but undermines the social movement which put them in office.
The Syriza tragedy shows that even with a radical left majority Government and a highly mobilised social movement real change is never guaranteed, not that this is an option in the short term in Ireland.
Whether a co-equal partnership Government of progressive and non-progressive parties would fare any better has yet to be tested.
For those of us committed to advancing profound political, social and economic change the next general election offers only two options. Hold our ground and force Fianna Fail and Fine Gael into a grand coalition or secure enough seats to consider a co-equal partnership government with either of the centre right parties.
Neither option is without risk but then nobody said overturning the status quo would be easy.
Originally published in the Sunday Business Post 29.1.17