Sunday 25 September 2016

Brace yourselves for yet more indecision

Published 18/04/2016 | 02:30

A deal on government, rather than a rush back to the polls, remains the most likely outcome, though there is only a small margin between the two potential outcomes.

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But brace yourselves for yet another week of chronic indecision.

There is at least another fortnight left in this one. As we head deeper into week number eight, it's time to do a quick stock-take of where everybody stands.

Enda Kenny and Fine Gael want to head a Rainbow Government functioning with some form of blessing from Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael are finding talks with the Independents to be hard-going.

The Independents are by definition driven as much by the individual and the local, and in Government they would be high maintenance. The Sunday Independent yesterday detailed a very long list of Independent demands with a total price tag of €13bn.

There are obvious advantages to including a much-battered Labour, with a chunk of seven votes, and then the Green Party with two. There is still also an outside chance of including the three Social Democrat TDs.

With or without them a few Independents would top off the Rainbow package.

Labour's decision on government or opposition is as much about the party leadership as anything else. It seems extraordinary that Joan Burton is not automatically seen as the former leader who presided over an electoral disaster. Talk of government seems to prolong her tenure.

The early post-election view within Labour, that rebuilding in opposition was the only option, has since been challenged. The crowded opposition benches could leave them seriously lacking definition and space.

The argument goes that a return to government might allow Labour to show they are delivering on demands for working people. Mind you, that was what the party said last time.

Remember how that one worked out?

It is not too hard to imagine the seven remaining Labour TDs agreeing a return to government - it is bordering on the impossible to envisage it getting through a members' special conference. This is no ordinary case of Labourites wrestling with their consciences - which in the past always resulted in defeat for their consciences.

If Labour did resolve their problems of strategy and confidence, the Green Party might then sing: "I will, if you will, so will I!" But it would be dangerous to automatically assume such a result.

True, the Green Party would be more comfortable collaborating in government with Labour, rather than a plethora of Independents. But Green Party leader Eamon Ryan has suggested that supporting a government from the opposition benches might be a better option.

And again, there is the prospect of a special members' conference. There is a very different membership in the Greens now compared with June 2007 when they voted eight out of 10 for coalition. But the memory of 2007-2011 will play for a "resurrected" party.

Fianna Fáil cling to the word "facilitate". The dictionary tells us this means: "to make an action easy or easier."

Micheál Martin & Co will never concede they are supporting a Rainbow government. They may never actually vote for the Government - just serially abstain, reserving the right to vote against every now and again.

Fianna Fáil might then rebuild in opposition. They will brush aside allegations of "party before country". Yesterday's encouraging returns from a survey - for The Sunday Times making them the biggest party for the first time since 2008 - will suggest they might be on the right tack.

But without a positive role by Fianna Fáil there will be no government. And whatever role may be played by Labour, Greens or Independents, the main focus for the coming week will be on resumed Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil talks.

The main obstacles remain some form of written guarantee assuring some security of tenure for the government. Passage for three Budgets seems to be the goal. Fianna Fáil must get over themselves about this one and forget about harking back to 1987-'89 when Fine Gael gave nothing in writing under Alan Dukes's "Tallaght Strategty".

There are only very limited comparisons to be borrowed from that experience now almost 30 years ago. In fact, the reality is that we have no comparisons from history for this totally unprecedented situation. Fianna Fáil must concede something here.

The other bugbear is the future of Irish Water and water charges. Relations around this issue have been poisonous over the past week.

On this one, Micheál Martin probably needs to be cut some slack if a durable deal is to be done. Some in-depth review of Irish Water's functions, and the concession of a much greater "free allowance" of water to curb over-use, would appear to point the way to compromise.

Sinn Féin's influence on all of this is rather akin to that of the "ghost at the feast." A great deal of Fianna Fáil's stance is shaped by their determination that Gerry Adams's crowd shall not be the "lead party of opposition".

It seems very strange that heading up the opposition should have become such a prize. History teaches us that being the leader of the opposition is too often a "damned if you - damned if you don't" sort of job. If you hammer the Government, you risk being dubbed "petty and vindictive" - if you don't hammer them you're definitely going to be dubbed "ineffectual."

But we shall see. Sinn Féin has been strangely quiet since their good, but not stellar, election outcome. They have put in the past eight weeks with periodic castigation of the two bigger parties - and in the next breath urging them to coalesce.

It is nothing short of ludicrous. They are likely to pump up the volume this coming weekend with their deferred ard fheis in Dublin.

Meanwhile, the six TDs of the Anti-Austerity Alliance - People Before Profit party are, along with seven left-leaning Independents, getting ready to be against the Government - any government.

Add it up, and you have 36 TDs who want nothing to do with the vulgar business of government-making. They may be the real villians in this ongoing turgid process. The voters, however, may not see things like that next time out.

Meanwhile, the problems continue to pile up. Industrial relations chaos beckons; Britain may vote to quit the EU on June 23; and health and housing problems need urgent attention from a strong government. That list is far from exhaustive - we need to see real signs of progress this coming week. We need a government in place by the following week.

Will we get that? Well, the obstacles are considerable - but they are far from insurmountable.

Irish Independent

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