Thursday 29 September 2016

Fianna Gael - from Civil War to coalition?

Bookies and pundits believe that a FG and FF coalition is the most likely election result. But our reporter finds deep unease among the party grassroots

Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30

Party leaders Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin
Party leaders Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin

Most members of Ireland's two biggest parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, will tell you that they are dead-set against any coalition with each other.

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But there is also a dawning realisation among the party ranks that after the ballot papers come tumbling out of the boxes next Saturday morning, the unthinkable may well happen.

Bookmakers Paddy Power this week slashed the odds on a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition to 11/10, indicating that they see it as the most likely outcome.

If the political punters are on the money, Enda Kenny will step into the Dáil, alongside Tánaiste Micheál Martin after a torturous deal is done.

Fine Gael ministers would be joined by up to seven Fianna Fáil cabinet colleagues - healing a Civil War split that goes back to the era of De Valera and Collins.

It would break the mould of Irish politics, but it would also be fraught with difficulties for both parties. It would leave the way open for a conventional European left-right split - and Sinn Féin as a possible alternative government.

Setting aside deep tribal loyalties, Kenny and Martin may see it as the only option once the electorate has spoken.

For both, there may not be other partners available.

As Teresa Maguire, a Fine Gael activist in Mayo, puts it: "We have a saying here that you can only dance with the girls in the hall.

"I would generally be against it, but you have to deal with each situation as it arises. We live in hope that we will get the outcome we desire, and we will not have to do the dancing that we don't want to do," says the school principal and county councillor.

In truth, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been casting flirtatious glances at each other for a few years now. They have exchanged the odd wink and nudge but then retreated back to their corners of the hall.

The late sports broadcaster Bill O'Herlihy, a long-time Fine Gael supporter, stoked up warm feelings at the Michael Collins commemoration at Béal na mBláth in 2013 when he posed the following question: "Does it make any sense to have the major political parties tussling for power where, for so long, the width of a sheet of tissue paper scarcely separated their policies? There can only be so many rematches."

Feverish gossip about a relationship has been revived in recent days as polls suggest the public has no desire to continue the Fine Gael tryst with Labour.

If the polls are accurate, and that's a big if, the possibility of a coalition will be dictated by simple arithmetic.

To gain a majority, a government will need at least 79 seats.

Fine Gael, with a projected tally of around 55 seats, would simply not have enough support for a coalition with a weakening Labour (with fewer than 15 seats) - even with the backing of the Social Democrats and Renua, who are expected to win a handful of seats between them. And Fianna Fáil, with a projected result of fewer than 35 seats, could not form an alternative government.

Few politicians can resist the temptation of power, and the big parties will come under pressure to form a government, particularly in a climate of global economic instability.

Professor Gary Murphy, head of the School of Government at Dublin City University, says: "The public will demand that a government is formed and unexpected combinations have come together before.

"Nobody expected Fianna Fáil and the PDs to come together, or Labour and Fianna Fáil. The only difference is that these are the two biggest parties in the State. So, it's a big move for them."

Prof Murphy says it will be extremely difficult for Fianna Fáil to cross the Rubicon of coalition with its old rival.

Among the grassroots in the big parties, the prospect of a great rapprochement is met with deep unease, particularly among older, rural members. In recent weeks, Fianna Fáil activist Padraig Fleming has been canvassing seven days a week in rural Laois for his brother, the TD Seán Fleming.

He says people bring up the prospect of coalition on the doorstep and are often in favour of it.

Fleming, like most of his fellow party workers, is firmly against the idea.

"If Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael joined up, we would be the smaller party.

"People would say there was no difference between us and we would be the ones who would lose out. I believe it would lead to the demise of Fianna Fáil. Look what has happened to Labour, the PDs and the Greens as smaller parties in government," says Fleming.

Prof Murphy of DCU agrees with this assessment, which is common among Fianna Fáil members, who will have to approve plans for a coalition government at a specially convened Ard Fheis.

"All the evidence suggests that smaller parties get cannibalised when they go into coalition with larger parties," says the academic.

Opposition to the idea of greater co-operation is not universal, however.

The former Fianna Fáil deputy leader Mary O'Rourke this week suggested a partnership coalition, with a 50-50 share of cabinet seats between the two parties.

Both parties have tried to dampen down speculation about a coalition, mostly for reasons of electoral tactics. But as recently as August of last year, the Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath said it would be arrogant to assume that his party could not be a minority partner in a future coalition.

At grassroots level in Crossmolina, Co Mayo, Fianna Fáil councillor Michael Loftus supports the idea of greater co-operation with Fine Gael, but he acknowledges that there is stiff opposition to the idea from older members.

"There is a younger generation coming up who don't know anything about the politics of 1916 and 1921.

"I have good friends on both sides of the table politically - whether is Fianna Fáil and Gael - and what we are all interested in is working for our local communities. Of course, we are now getting slagged off that we are about to go into coalition."

Among some older heads in Fianna Fáil, there is a fear that younger TDs will have few reservations about coalition, because they will be attracted by the baubles of high office. Their opportunity to take ministerial seats may not come again for decades.

In Fine Gael, those who could live with coalition most easily tend to be the younger urban members with less awareness of old-fashioned tribal loyalties.

Leo Varadkar has said that a FF-FG alliance would feel like gay marriage - a bit strange at first, but it would quickly be accepted as completely normal.

But many old-style Blueshirts do not see it that way.

"Leo is probably coming from a different background to grassroots members down the country," says one senior party official.

"It would be a shock to them if there was a coalition. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been fighting each other for the last 80 years, and now we are going to ask them to leap into bed together."

The staunch opposition to any coalition deal does not just split along generational lines in Fine Gael; many younger members would also be deeply unhappy with it.

UCD student Aideen Burke, who grew up in East Clare in a Fine Gael family, believes it would be a disaster.

"A lot of people are in this Dublin bubble, and they don't realise how strong the roots of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are down the country. For the grassroots members in Clare, coalition is never going to be an option."

Opponents of a partnership highlight the tribal loyalties, and they make the rational argument that an alliance would merely clear a path for Sinn Féin as the main opposition party. They are less clear on the precise policy differences between the parties. While Fine Gael blames Fianna Fáil for the crash, Finance Minister Michael Noonan closely followed his predecessor Brian Lenihan's blueprint for rescuing the economy.

There would be a neat historical symmetry to a FF-FG coalition emerging just days before the centenary of the Rising. Some of the founders of both parties fought in the Rising together and campaigned together in 1918 under the banner of Sinn Féin.

The keen students of history in both groupings will also have learned that once dominant, parties can rapidly disappear. For decades in the 19th and early 20th century, the Irish Parliamentary Party was a dominant force but it was washed away by the tide of history after the Rising.

Whatever coalition they form after the next election, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will be keen to avoid that fate.

Tweedledee & tweedledum?

Economy

Fianna Fáil promises to create 250,000 jobs while for Fine Gael the figure is 200,000. Fine Gael closely followed Fianna Fáil's four-year austerity plan when it came to power.

Tax

Both believe in low corporation tax, and both want to abolish the Universal Social Charge for most workers - Fine Gael will scrap it for everyone, and Fianna Fáil for those earning up to €80,000.

Health

While in power, both parties have muddled along with an expensive and inefficient two-tier system. Fine Gael promises free GP care for all children by 2019.

The National Question

Fianna Fáil used to be considered much greener when Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton led Fine Gael. But the North has become a non-issue, and Fine Gael has shed its "Johnny Unionist" tag as it wraps itself in the green flag for Rising commemorations.

Education

Both parties would be closer in outlook to each other than they are to Labour, and would be unlikely to take control of schools away from churches. Both promise to lower pupil/teacher ratios in primary schools. While in power, both increased college fees.

Abortion

Both parties are divided on the issue of abortion, with strong conservative factions that would oppose any moves to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Pensions

Both parties are targeting their election goodies at older voters, who are more likely to turn out at the polls. Fianna Fáil would increase the old-age pension by €30 a week, while Fine Gael is promising to hike it by €25 a week.

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