A rumoured alliance between Sinn Fein and Fine Gael appears closer this week after Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar launched the West Belfast festival, Feile an Phobail, on Friday.
The festival emerged from annual events held in August to mark the anniversary of the introduction of internment without trial, and remains closely associated with Sinn Fein.
Varadkar’s involvement came after Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald denied reports in the mainstream media that she has been “flirting” with Fine Gael, but issued her clearest statement yet about entering into a future coalition.
“I want to lead the party into government,” she said. “I want to do that from the strongest possible position. I want us to discuss, debate, agree with others a programme for government.”
She set out her approach to the so-called “squeezed middle”, stressing the priorities of public services and the cost of living. She said that a programme for government drawn up by Sinn Fein and one of the two conservative parties would be a document that “will be ambitious, that will be different and that looks at the red line issues around the health system, people’s standard of living, people’s capacity to have just some disposable income at the end of the week or the end of the month”.
Ms McDonald stressed the interests of “people who are at work but are still struggling, people who pay their taxes, do everything by the book and still constantly have their hand in the pocket for everything and who scratch their heads and wonder ‘what am I paying those taxes for?’
“People who look at the system and say, it doesn’t work, or it doesn’t work for me, it’s not accountable.”
Fine Gael leads a minority government which depends on the support of its traditional opponents, Fianna Fail. That agreement may not last far beyond October, when the 26 County annual budget is to be set out. The Sinn Fein leader is seeking to modify her party’s stance in advance of a general election which could take place with little notice. The issue might be raised in a special party conference to be held next weekend to redraft its policy on abortion.
DUP Arlene Foster described herself as “very concerned” about Mr Varadkar’s decision to launch the West Belfast festival, and the party has pointed to a number of republican-themed events on the programme. Responding, the Taoiseach noted the DUP leader had attended the festival in the past, and that headline music act Olly Murs could not be accused of being a “diehard republican”.
Dee Fennell of Saoradh condemned Varadkar’s visit. In a tweet, he described Mr Varadkar as a “blueshirt anti-republican” and accused the Taoiseach of continuing the internment of republicans through the juryless Special Criminal Court in Dublin, even as he launched a festival “set up to coincide with the date internment was brought in in 1971.”
During the event, Me Varadkar also met with Sinn Fein’s Deputy leader Michelle O’Neill and the new Mayor of Belfast Deirdre Hargey. In what was billed as a ‘balanced’ trip north of the border, Varadkar also became the first Taoiseach to visit the headquarters of the anti-Catholic Orange Order.
Sinn Fein MP for West Paul Maskey described that meeting as “historic”. “I welcome this initiative and hope this might open up a new era of engagement between the Grand Lodge and wider society,” he said. He also welcomed the Taoiseach to west Belfast. “Feile an Phobail represents all that is good in west Belfast and An Taoiseach will get to see for himself the vibrancy, the creativity, the talent, inclusivity and energy of the local community.”