Sunday 11 December 2016

The people have spoken. What happens next?

With the outcome far from clear, Eoin O'Malley explores the options - and what they mean for the parties in the long term

Eoin O'Malley

Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE: Shane Ross celebrates being elected to the Dublin Rathdown constituency at the count center in Tallaght yesterday. Shane was the first candidate to be elected in this General Election. Photo: Barbara Lindberg.
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE: Shane Ross celebrates being elected to the Dublin Rathdown constituency at the count center in Tallaght yesterday. Shane was the first candidate to be elected in this General Election. Photo: Barbara Lindberg.

The people have mumbled. So, what happens next? Each person may individually make a clear choice when voting, but when we add up all the votes, the outcome isn't always so clear. Party leaders and their advisers will be looking at the result and wondering what they are meant to do with it.

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The outgoing Government was roundly rejected. And it will be difficult for any other party to support Enda Kenny as Taoiseach now. But there isn't a positive choice for an alternative. In truth, no alternative was on offer. And no government appears likely.

But there is a natural tendency for a government to be formed. Even though the parties and the candidates claim to love elections, they're exhausted after what has really been a five-month campaign. They're also broke. They want to avoid an election, certainly an immediate election.

So even though they won't want to, politicians will often go into government with sworn enemies when the alternative is worse. Albert Reynolds once famously called it a "temporary little arrangement" -we call them governments.

What looks possible? At the moment Fine Gael and Fianna Fail could form a majority coalition. There will be pressure from the left and the media for this to happen. Fine Gael might suggest the people wanted change and leave it to the other parties to come up with an alternative. But that isn't viable.

The only viable majority is Fianna Fail/Fine Gael. However, it is in neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fail's long-term interest for this to happen. Governing together will remove any reason for them to exist as separate parties. It will mean the end of one of them, but it is not clear which one. Coalition is very risky for both.

Different people in each party will have different preferences. Charles Haughey did a deal with the PDs because it was that or the end of Haughey. Enda Kenny will desperately want to be re-elected Taoiseach, but it is hard to see how Kenny remains as leader - or how he can push a deal through his party.

Within Fianna Fail, the Young Turks will be happy to do a deal. They will eye up their ministerial Mercs. But I doubt a deal will happen. Martin will counsel caution. He's been around long enough to see the risks. Martin will think about the long term. He has been a minister 14 years, and won't be in a rush to have a seat at cabinet. His eyes are on the bigger prize: becoming Taoiseach and making Fianna Fail the main party in Irish politics once more. His major strategic consideration will be that if his party went into coalition with Fine Gael, this would let Sinn Fein be the major party of the opposition.

Sinn Fein will be disappointed with its result, but would be excited by a Fianna Fail/Fine Gael coalition, which could allow Sinn Fein to portray itself as the main basis for an alternative government. A new Sinn Fein leader could make hay.

Micheal Martin will be aware that Labour went into government - to offer the country a stable government - when it could have been the main opposition party. He knows better than most that had Labour chosen opposition in 2011 we could be now looking at Eamon Gilmore as the next Taoiseach.

Even if Martin were minded to go into government with Fine Gael, there are procedural hurdles. It is not the parliamentary party that makes the decision. In 2013 the party changed rules so that "a draft programme for government must be presented to voting members of the organisation for approval at a special Ard Fheis before any such government can be formed" with a "one member, one vote basis to accept or reject the draft programme".

Last year, the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis approved a motion to rule out a coalition in which Fianna Fail is the junior partner, and it's likely those same voters would reject any deal to elect a Fine Gael Taoiseach. This might be for tribal reasons, but it is also for rational ones.

Fianna Fail knows that it is once again within touching distance of being the largest party. It might have little to fear from a second election, especially one at a time of its own choosing. The new parliamentary party will have some new faces and talent, which takes the 'male and stale' look off it. Martin will be strengthened sufficiently to downgrade his main detractors, Eamon O Cuiv and John McGuinness. It could be his party. Fianna Fail's success in the 2014 local elections means the party will do well in the Seanad elections, allowing its defeated candidates time to nurse a constituency.

In government, Martin wouldn't have the time or energy to deliver this rebuilding effort, and government is a dangerous place for a party. It always means making unpopular decisions. Compromise becomes easier because the alternative - leaving - usually means an election. You find yourself accepting things cumulatively that you would never have originally accepted.

There is some talk of a rotating Taoiseach and of what happened in Israel in 1984, but in that case both big parties had seen a drop in support. They were afraid of going back to the electorate. They were also from opposite sides of the political divide in Israeli politics, and so weren't leaving a major competitor out. Fianna Fail would only allow a Fine Gael-led coalition if it included Sinn Fein.

There are also comparisons with 1948, when everyone in the Dail got together to remove Fianna Fail. But there was a difference: Fianna Fail had been in power for 16 years, and the others were willing to compromise to remove them from office. In 2016 no party has anything to fear from opposition.

So what is likely to happen?

Martin won't want an immediate second election. Instead, we might be looking at a 1927 scenario. Then, the two main parties Cumman na nGaedheal (Fine Gael's predecessor) and Fianna Fail were in similar positions as 2016, with 47 and 44 seats. There were a lot of small parties and Independents. No majority government could be formed. What happened? Fianna Fail abstained, allowing the Cosgrave government retain office. A few months later, Fianna Fail brought down the government. In the subsequent election just three months after the first, small parties suffered and the two big parties thrived, forming the Irish party system that lasted until 2011.

This year Fianna Fail will want to be able to say it behaved responsibly. It could eventually abstain from a vote to elect a Fine Gael Taoiseach, but not on March 10 - they'll want to see the new Fine Gael leader rejected at least once. This would force a minority Fine Gael government to form issue-by-issue coalitions in which Fianna Fail would be able to extract concessions.

If Kenny is defeated for Taoiseach on March 10, he has to submit to a leadership contest by secret ballot. If he makes it to here, he won't survive that contest. A new Fine Gael leader will be elected. Fianna Fail will then have to consider the political landscape. Rather than having to leave government, Fianna Fail will have a much stronger bargaining position - because each vote will be one in which it chooses to support the government. It won't be locked in. Fianna Fail could then decide to end this arrangement, forcing an election on water charges in the autumn. This could be the election that makes it the biggest party again and makes Martin Taoiseach.

This isn't a risk-free strategy. It will be reminded of the impact on Fine Gael of the Tallaght Strategy. Then, Fine Gael appeared powerless and irrelevant. A new Fine Gael leader may turn out to be popular, and might be seen as responsible. It could go to the country on that.

The only certainty is that nothing is certain.

Dr Eoin O'Malley is a senior lecturer in political science at the School of Law and Government in Dublin City University

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