Monday 24 October 2016

Be assured, no one will be putting the national interest before the party

Published 29/02/2016 | 02:30

Labour posters being cleaned up after the party was cleaned out. Photo: Reuters
Labour posters being cleaned up after the party was cleaned out. Photo: Reuters

We have seen a shift in the tectonic plates in the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael rivalry. Another election will be required for Fianna Fáil to become the largest party, but it is now poised to do so. The situation is very similar to 1981-82, when it took three elections to establish Garret FitzGerald as a national leader.

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Similarly, in the late 1980s, it took two elections in 1987 and 1989 for Charles Haughey to get a clear term of office. The singular factor that Micheál Martin faced in this election was would he be the first Fianna Fáil leader not to become Taoiseach? That question has been answered definitively.

Fianna Fáil will look for circumstances where it can pick up an extra 12 seats next time. These are in constituencies where it picked up enough votes for extra seats but didn't run enough candidates. The constituencies where it can gain a seat for the first time include half a dozen where it currently has no seat but is knocking on the door, including Dún Laoghaire, Dublin Central and Dublin North West.

There are prospects for a second seat in Clare, Cork East and throughout Munster, in places such as Kerry and Tipperary on a better day. In many cases the party just came up short of winning that elusive seat on final counts.

Fianna Fáil may have to engage in a tactical manoeuvre with Fine Gael towards a grand coalition, but what it really, really, wants is another crack at the title. Therefore, I take Mr Martin at his word when he says he and his party want no part in a grand coalition.

Brace for a considerable period where people from the business community and other sectors will encourage parties to end the instability and form a government. Fine Gael will jump at the chance of even a rotating Taoiseach, as long as Enda Kenny goes first.

Fianna Fáil's game plan is now clear. It wants to give the impression of respecting the national interest. Abstention may be part of the plan. It may toy with facilitating a minority Fine Gael administration rather than a grand coalition. Over the next 18 months, there should be plenty of opportunities to pull the rug at an opportune moment to reap maximum reward. Its target will be to become the largest party and acquire 60 seats.

While it might seem obvious that the only government that can be formed on a sustainable basis is a pairing of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, it is unlikely to happen.

The public can rest assured that the taxes will be collected, the buses will run (but maybe not the Luas) and life will continue, even after Mr Kenny has been defeated on March 10 in the Dáil and offered his resignation to the President, having been unable to secure a mandate.

Uncertainty is currently prevailing in Spain and prevailed for 580 days in Belgium. Life goes on. I can see no circumstances in which people will put the national interest before their party.

Mr Martin is the only leader of the main four leaders who can take any satisfaction from connecting with the public during the election campaign.

Mr Kenny has lost credibility and authority. From the lofty height of 115 TDs supporting his election as Taoiseach in 2011, he can only summon 56 to support him on this occasion. Enda Kenny is already in the twilight of his political career. He will face a heave against his leadership of Fine Gael.

He will survive in the interim because he will say "don't hit me while I am holding the baby", that infant being the prospect of retaining the role of Taoiseach and sustaining a sense of duty in forming a government. That won't cut much ice with the plethora of Fine Gael candidates who lost their seats having worked their behinds off over the last five years.

Fine Gael candidates all over the country will want to have a different face on the election posters next time round.

Labour's role has now become so marginalised it doesn't matter who its leader is. The party is out of the picture for the next government.

Superficially, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams can take some satisfaction from gained seats but he will focus on the ones that got away.

In relation to the smaller parties, this was an election that promised a lot but delivered very little.

Renua will probably combust. The prospect of electing individual TDs with a view to widening a franchise, as tried by the Social Democrats, is real. But the gap for new entrants in Irish politics is extremely narrow.

The space for reproducing the success of Des O'Malley and Mary Harney's PDs has gone. We are left, then, with two Healy-Raes being elected in Kerry and three colourful Independents in Tipperary.

Outside of these constituencies there is bemusement. Credible Independents can thrive in a gap in the market where the major parties or Sinn Féin failed to capture the second or last seat in constituencies. There is a risk for those parties in a subsequent election where the single issue has been over-shadowed by the need to form a government.

There will be a counter-reaction to the growth of Independents in the context of left-wing groups coming together. Otherwise, many will wither on the vine.

It is advantage to Micheál Martin. He is the real winner of this election and stands well placed to be Taoiseach, sooner or later.

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