'Grand coalition' option cannot be ruled out
Published 18/01/2016 | 02:30
MICHEÁL Martin's frustration is understandable. But repeatedly saying "No coalition - not with Sinn Féin and not with Fine Gael" will not alter reality. After the election, the Dáil arithmetic will tell all. The least likely outcome of this upcoming election will be another election in its immediate wake. The politicians will make a virtue of necessity and try to make a government out of whatever permutation is given them.
Stand by for a blast of: "I know we of Party X insisted we would not coalesce with Party Y. Now the people have spoken. They have given us this result and told us to make a government of it. They will not thank us if we shirk our duty to provide stable government."
For once, such an evocation of the "national interest" would be justified. General elections are about making a government - and now more than ever we need stable government.
There is every chance that Fianna Fáil could become the main focus of attention. Two opinion polls published yesterday suggest that "a grand coalition" involving Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would be the most viable option for government.
The English political strategist Professor Tim Bale was at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis at Citywest in Dublin on Saturday afternoon. He has made a study of the British Conservative Party's wilderness years, and last spoke to Micheál Martin's party four years ago about their long road to recovery.
In an open session with party chief whip Seán Ó Fearghaíl and director of elections Billy Kelleher, Dr Bale said Fianna Fáil is "off life support" - but still not breathing entirely unassisted. He warned against reading too much into the 2014 local election results - which saw the party get 25pc and left it just fractionally ahead of Fine Gael.
For him it was just the helpful light at the end of a very long tunnel, and the British Tories had made too much on similar results on their long road back, and wrongly assumed their recovery was happening more swiftly than it actually did.
The professor was kindly and positive, but very hard-headed, about what would be a good Fianna Fáil election result. That would be the party cutting the margin between themselves and Fine Gael from 19pc last time down to single figures this time out. It would also involve staying ahead of their Sinn Féin rivals on the left flank.
For the medium to longer term it is sound advice. But it still leaves Fianna Fáil trying to fight this election as an interim or holding campaign. They are left trying to tell voters: "Bear with us, we are in phase one of our two- or three-phase recovery programme. We might not be huge in this election, but wait until you see us in the one after this one."
It is not inspiring stuff. It leaves the party occupying a pretty aimless political space. It seriously risks making them irrelevant.
Prof Bale freely and correctly admitted that voters do not obsess about policy. But his advice was for the party to major on policy issues and avoid what he called "coalitionology". Ultimately, voters will take some general policy directions on board when deciding who to support, he argued.
He conceded that pursuing policy will be difficult to do because the media will keep bringing the election back to what government permutations may emerge.
Well, it is not just the media here. It is also what political rivals will say - and the voters. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour are known as parties of government in this country. And of these, Fianna Fáil was long seen as the "natural party of government", having led the country for a total of 60 years.
This is the first time they go into an election not being serious contenders to be in power. By ruling out Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, they are in reality ruling out Fianna Fáil being in government.
Yet, Mr Martin appeared to have anticipated Prof Bale's advice in preparing for this weekend's Ard Fheis, which was well attended by a rather upbeat group of party members, and he also took the attendant series of media opportunities well.
Again he showed that he is an eloquent and accomplished politician, he did major on policy and he stuck it to the Government on social issues.
But "coalitionology" - and specifically the idea of that "grand coalition" - will not go away. Favourable noises from within Fianna Fáil about not ruling out the principle of sharing government with Fine Gael continue. Writing in yesterday's 'Sunday Independent', Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness says that the prospect must be faced, and cannot be ruled out.
The article should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in Irish politics. It pithily evokes a rapidly changing political landscape and is extremely thought-provoking. Its finest quality is its realism.
Many others in Fianna Fáil are thinking what McGuinness is saying. Others who have made comments along similar lines, though not as definitive, include former ministers Mary Hanafin and Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher.
The prospect also finds resonance on the other side of the equation among Fine Gael. Waterford TD John Deasy is among the few to put his head above the parapet and say it. He argues that if political stability is your prime concern to help ensure economic stability, then all options must be looked at - including the prospects of Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil in government.
The names Deasy and McGuinness rarely appear in print without the accompanying epithet "maverick". It is true that each has long-term membership of the "awkward squad". But it often takes a maverick to say the things many of the rest of us are thinking.
We began by saying we can understand Mr Martin's frustration. He rails against the media for not taking his pronouncements on coalition at face value. His supporters argue that he is sticking to policy and working to carve out an identity for his party in this contest.
But there is a danger here that an artificial distinction can be made between the basis on which this election is fought and politicians' plans for after polling day. That cannot be allowed to happen.