All kinds of coalitions add up when you do the maths on the next government
FORMING the next government will above all else be a game of 79-plus. It's worth keeping that in mind when you hear all these declarations that Sinn Fein wouldn't go with Fine Gael, Fianna Fail wouldn't go with Sinn Fein, and you'll never see Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in coalition.
These declarations may influence voting, but in the end it will be about simple Dail arithmetic.
There are 158 seats in the new Dail which we expect will be elected in spring 2016 – if not earlier.
The grouping that can get 79 seats and poach a Ceann Comhairle from the ranks of the others has a government. They would, of course, like a cushion of quite a few more seats – but 79-plus is enough.
Many people with a keen interest in politics believe that the next election, due within 22 months at the latest, will be an absolute humdinger.
At this stage the outcome is extremely difficult to predict because of the many new factors emerging from the local and European elections: the heavy reverse for Labour; the rampant rise of independents; the revival of Fianna Fail; the serious depletion of Fine Gael's stock; the return of the Green Party; and, above all, the rise and rise of Sinn Fein.
Some or all of these factors will play a role in forming the next government.
The least likely outcome of the next general election will be another election.
There will be enough seasoned political leaders to sit and work with whatever permutation the voters give them. It is the politicians' obligation to form as stable a government as possible and work with what they have.
We can depend on the fact that a government will emerge from even the zaniest Dail – and given the shift in our political culture an unlikely looking coalition would have an extremely good chance of working.
So, cue a statement you could well hear more than once in spring/early summer 2016. "It is true that we said we could never share government with 'party X'. But the voters have given us this result.
They would not thank us for shrinking from our duty now to provide stable government. We in 'party Y' have always put the country first."
In saying all of this, I am not accusing our politicians of dishonesty but merely trying to say this is the way things look right now. I believe politicians' statements about coalition preferences, and the difficulties they would face in dealing with one another, are honest and correct.
But an election result will bring its own realities and demands.
If yet another election is the least likely outcome of the next one, a single-party government comes next on the unlikely outcomes list. But don't let our experience of coalitions for the past 40 years allow us to totally rule it out.
Fianna Fail came very close to an overall majority in May 2002, and Fine Gael looked set to do it at one stage in the last campaign in February 2011.
There is also the prospect of a single party putting together a minority government with the external support of a smaller grouping.
Next up is the likely pivotal role of Sinn Fein. If they can just hold what they have they could well be in coalition and all their post-election statements show they are keen to do it.
SF president Gerry Adams has utterly downplayed the prospect of allying with Fine Gael. And Fine Gael has always made it clear that they would not like to do business with SF. But let's just file this one under "a very difficult option" and keep that 79-plus coda in mind.
So, what of Fianna Fail? They have their continuing difficulties but their stock is rising.
Party leader Micheal Martin wants to avoid talk of coalition with Sinn Fein. Others in FF take a more pragmatic view and an FF-SF coalition would be put together a lot easier than many people think.
Let's not write out a much-battered Labour from our scenarios. Odds are they will be in the next Dail and could well be called upon to provide a third leg to a three-legged coalition.
The same could be said of the Green Party who played such a role with disastrous results for themselves in 2007-2011.
In this regard we must also watch the growth of independents in Irish politics. Experienced operators such as Catherine Murphy and Finian McGrath could help them carve out a government role post-2016 either with or without a presence in cabinet.
But what of the coalition option that dare not speak its name: Fine Gael-Fianna Fail? Ironically, this is the least likely of all simply because these are two extremely similar political organisations determinedly in the business of staying in business.
But our 79-plus rule applies even here also – though we would rate it as a harder option than even FG-SF.
Many people within FF and FG agree that coalition would signal an inevitable merger.
Now, would that be such a calamitous outcome?