News John Downing

Monday 26 September 2016

It may have to be that FG-FF coalition after all

Published 15/02/2016 | 02:30

Fine Gael Manifesto
Fine Gael Manifesto

From today there are 11 canvass days left. Up to now, Fine Gael was quietly relying on ramping up its core message in the final week. Labour keeps waiting for luck in quantities akin to a miracle.

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Fine Gael backroom people hark back to the May 2007 general election, when the final week just came up roses for a very embattled Fianna Fáil and it snatched the keys of Government Buildings from Enda Kenny. If that is to happen, things will have to begin turning this Thursday or Friday.

Otherwise, if the current opinion poll findings hold good on polling day itself, we are looking at a long and complex set of negotiations before we get a government - unless of course the idea of a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition comes to fruition.

Fine Gael's current ratings, around 28pc in a plethora of surveys, would leave them very far short of the 60-plus TDs, and very far off that quest for the magic 80 seats for coalition. Labour's fate may be even more uncertain, as it stays stubbornly shy of double figures in the opinion polls.

Yesterday's 8pc rating might see it scrape into double figures in Dáil seats. Even at that, there could be a question mark over Labour's willingness to participate in a Fine Gael-led coalition that involved groups of smaller parties and Independents. Let's recall that a new government programme would have to get past a Labour special conference of members.

I have written many times that Labour has a good story to tell. But by now it is abundantly clear that Labour's arguments do not appear to be getting a hearing from voters, who have turned to Sinn Féin and some of the smaller groupings on the left. It is hard to imagine that situation changing in the coming week. Though the Labour principals will undoubtedly keep trying.

Fine Gael's message, once you strip out all the details about tax and PRSI thresholds, is a very simple one: If you feel lucky, go back to the crowd that wrecked the economy - or move on to the other crowd who will certainly wreck it. Otherwise, stick with us.

Enda Kenny's message yesterday reduced things to a choice between "chaos" or "continuity". The risk of course is that the punters will see it as a turn-off and smacking of arrogance. That is what the combined opposition keep on saying it is.

So far, the voters are not buying the "chaos or us" story. We are left to assume that Fine Gael is set to move it up a gear and try to put the frighteners on the voters in a "kill or cure" move.

Fianna Fáil's assurances that it is doing better than the opinion polls suggest has a ring of truth. But the opinion polls leave it dangerously close to February 2011 meltdown levels. And we have no clear way of gauging how better off than that sub-20pc level it may be.

Sinn Féin, by contrast, may be over-stated in the polls. In yesterday's Red C survey for the 'Sunday Business Post' the party was shown on 20pc and up two points. Again, we have no way of gauging the level of over-statement.

Sinn Féin got just under 10pc last time. In any form of human endeavour, a predicted increase in the order of a doubling of scores in five years must be seen as considerable progress. But it is a simple political reality that it might be low on preferred coalition partners.

We are left to infer from the opinion polls that the electorate are hugely discounting these campaign protestations among the four parties as they rule out various coalition options. Fine Gael will have neither Fianna Fáil nor Sinn Féin; Fianna Fáil shuns Fine Gael and Sinn Féin; and Sinn Féin says "No Fine Gael" but "maybe" Fianna Fáil as junior partners.

In this newspaper, we have many times written that these slogans are the basis for fighting the election campaign. Dáil arithmetic could radically change that and lead to some very pragmatic negotiations. In the past 25 years, we have seen some 'impossible' coalitions become 'possible' when the figures added up. Even in this campaign we get clear glimpses of this. Yesterday, for example, the Taoiseach was asked what could be called the 'Trevor Sargent question'. In June 2007, the then Green Party leader stood down because he had emphatically said he would not lead the Greens into coalition with Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fáil.

Would the Taoiseach, in ruling out coalition with Fianna Fáil, also contemplate standing down as party leader to facilitate such a coalition in extremis? Kenny fell back on the mantra that it was hypothetical questioning. Thus, when asked the 'Trevor Sargent question' he dodged.

Many people in both parties believe that a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition - a sort of national security fall-back - may ultimately be the only option. There are many obstacles, including new Fianna Fáil rules requiring a special Árd Fheis. But none of these obstacles is entirely insurmountable in a hung Dáil.

There is a long-standing assumption that such a coalition would be a prelude to merger, the ending of 'civil war politics' and the emergence of a new left-right party structure. Hands up, this writer has shared that kind of theorising.

But when you stand back from it all, it may be time for a reality check here too.

Why must we blithely assume that two large organisations - very much in the business of staying in business since the State's foundation - should suddenly want to cease existing because they share power with one another for a period? We cannot rule out the prospect of profound change in public sentiment over the coming days.

But it will be an especially nervous week for Kenny. His claim to be recent and future national economic saviour is very slow to get traction with a whole swathe of the electorate.

Irish Independent

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