Wednesday 28 September 2016

Fianna Fáil’s willingness to at least ‘facilitate’

All Fine Gael needs then is six Independents for a result

Published 16/04/2016 | 02:30

Micheál Martin. Photo: Mark Condren
Micheál Martin. Photo: Mark Condren

We have today surpassed the previous all-time record of 48 days after an election without government - but it seems like government-making is really only now beginning.

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There are big bugbears remaining in the way of a Fine Gael-led, but Fianna Fáil "facilitated" minority government. Chief of these is a written set of operating ground rules for that minority government and a workable compromise on the future of Irish Water.

If the big party negotiators can get through that one, all Fine Gael then has to do is win the support of at least six of the group of Independent TDs. And could we have all of that by Wednesday next, please?

Right now, it makes the 'Herculean Tasks' seem like second division stuff. But the alternative of a general election within weeks, and a keen sense of increasing public frustration, just might concentrate minds.

Publicly at least, Fianna Fáil is still in fulmination mode. "Why should we have to give Fine Gael a detailed written guarantee on minority government? We got no such thing last time under that Tallaght Strategy.'

"All we got in 1987 was a speech by Alan Dukes at the Tallaght Chamber of Commerce," one Fianna Fáil politician insisted.

One of its most senior and shrewdest politicians, Willie O'Dea, is keen to stick with the word "facilitate" - and for him facilitate means not opposing, or indeed not upending a new government.

The Limerick TD is keen to stress that Fianna Fáil would be on the Opposition benches and asserting its own identity.

Mr O'Dea does not need to add that it's about Fianna Fáil being the lead party of Opposition - not leaving Sinn Féin a huge swathe of what it sees as its own territory in which it could continue building support.

In claiming its right to defend its own political interests, Fianna Fáil risks missing the cultural expectations placed upon it by an electorate which has been fed generations of claims by the party that it was "the natural party of government". It cannot suddenly insist upon opposition now, without the risk of future fallout.

In an ideal world, Fianna Fáil would really like to give a very broad-brush verbal blessing to Enda Kenny. Then it would reserve the right to yank the government chain on a regular basis.

Happily, that cannot happen as Fine Gael will not live with it. Perhaps more importantly neither will the Independent TDs, who would give a minority government, with maybe as few as 60 out of 158 TDs, whatever moral and political force it may possess.

The Independents are demanding a guarantee of three more Budgets being passed. They variously and repeatedly said that, without that kind of timed guarantee, there really is no point in proceeding. By that line of argument, it would be as well to have a general election sooner rather than only slightly later.

It is clear that much of next week's haggling will turn around the scope and shape of any written guarantee. Fine Gael will be seeking to make it as explicit as possible, while Fianna Fáil will be doing the exact opposite. But without some acceptable paper - there can be no government.

Then we turn to the intractable issue of Irish Water. Fianna Fáil says it was enraged by the hardline position on this issue adopted by Fine Gael TDs and senators meeting on Wednesday night. Micheál Martin will demand some clear concession here.

Assuming success in all of that, Fine Gael must turn to the Independents for their support. A foretaste of the difficulty here was epitomised by Independent TD Finian McGrath's insistence that up to five Cabinet seats must be reserved for them. And that is before agreement is reached with Independents on Budgets and key policies like health, housing, rural development, disability supports and other matters.

One thing is now clear. After three unproductive votes on Taoiseach selection, this process is nearing the end of the road.

It may be too much to expect a result when the TDs return to Leinster House next Wednesday. But we absolutely must see clear signs of progress in what is a complex and daunting process. Failing that we really are looking at another election late next month or in early June. And still, absolutely nobody wants that.

Irish Independent

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