Friday 24 March 2017

Martin backs off from coalition amid fears over Sinn Féin surge

Fianna Fáil leader speaks to the media Micheál Martin outside Leinster House on the first day of the Dáil. Photo: Tom Burke
Fianna Fáil leader speaks to the media Micheál Martin outside Leinster House on the first day of the Dáil. Photo: Tom Burke

Niall O'Connor and Cormac McQuinn

Micheál Martin is backing away from forming a 'grand coalition' with Fine Gael after tactics used by Sinn Féin on Irish Water during the first day of the Dáil.

The Fianna Fáil leader has been spooked by the idea of giving a free run in opposition to Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin exploited the issue of water charges just hours into the Dáil proceedings - in a clear attempt to force a vote on what could be a key stumbling block in future coalition talks.

Fine Gael favours keeping the charges in place, while Fianna Fáil wants to see them suspended for five years. It would see Irish Water replaced with a smaller national water directorate. But senior Fianna Fáil sources say Mr Martin was left "spooked" after he was forced to deny being opposed to a debate on Irish Water.

Just hours into proceedings, senior Sinn Féin politicians demanded Dáil business be changed to allow for a debate on proposals to scrap water charges. The move led to frantic discussions among Fianna Fáil deputies as Mr Martin weighed up whether to back the proposed motion. But after Fianna Fáil eventually agreed with Fine Gael that the motion was out of order, Sinn Féin accused Mr Martin's party of running scared on the issue.

And in an extraordinary charge, Sinn Féin's deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald suggested newly elected Ceann Comhairle Séan O Fearghaíl, who is a Fianna Fáil deputy, ruled the motion out of order in bid to protect his party and "keep water charges off the agenda".

Fianna Fáil now believes Sinn Féin will consistently attempt to bounce the two main parties into coalition as part of its plan to become the largest force in the Opposition benches.

Last night, a senior Fianna Fáil source said the episode illustrated the dangers that will face the party if it works with Fine Gael. "They are trying to bounce us in together and mislead the public by suggesting we are two peas of the same pod," said the source.

Ms McDonald last night said she would "absolutely not" apologise to Mr Ó Fearghaíl for her remarks and the messy end to the Dáil proceedings.

"It's a bit farcical now on the one hand to say we're all about reform, we're all about affording deputies the opportunity to honour their mandate and to speak, and then when people attempt to do so, to accuse people of abusing Dáil reform."

The Dublin Central TD said Fianna Fáil "converted to a view of abolishing water charges" and that her party was "forwarding a mechanism by which that objective could be achieved". "Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party prevented the issue of water being placed on the agenda," she said.

"We want the issue of the water charges brought before the Dáil but it seems that other parties including Fianna Fáil, who said that water was a red-line issue for them, were not prepared to deal with the issue in the Dáil, so it's a simple matter of flip-flopping again by Fianna Fáil.

"I think it demonstrated their cynicism, their absolute cynicism in speaking out of both sides of their mouths on the issue." Ms McDonald also denied the tactics were a cynical effort to force Fianna Fáil to vote on the matter.

"No, our objective is to place the issue of the water charges on the agenda.

"Our objective is the abolition of water charges … there's nothing cynical, there's nothing hidden about that."

Meanwhile, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have dismissed talks going on between two former backroom staff.

Former Fianna Fáil staff member Noel Whelan and former Fine Gael adviser Frank Flannery are understood to be exchanging policy documents.

But party sources say they have no mandate and are not acting on behalf of their parties.

Irish Independent

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