Sunday 23 October 2016

Lessons in 'Dáil numbers for slow learners' to go on

Published 15/04/2016 | 02:30

The Dáil chamber. Photo: Tony Gavin
The Dáil chamber. Photo: Tony Gavin

Today we are precisely on the seven-week mark since the election. From tomorrow, all previous records of time without a government will be broken.

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Back in 1992-93, it took 48 days, from election day on November 25 until January 12, for Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring to put together a Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition.

This time around, after a similar delay, we seem to be only beginning.

With apologies to the great Séamus Mallon of the SDLP, and his reflections on the 25-year gap between Sunningdale in 1973 and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the span it took the IRA to realise the futility of violence, this one looks like a case of "Dáil numbers for slow learners".

We've known since the election count was completed that the only route to government depended on some arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Up until last night, Micheál Martin publicly maintained the fiction that his party could lead the next government. But for the greater part of a month that has looked like a non-starter. Yesterday's third vote for Taoiseach - where Fianna Fáil had not gleaned a single extra vote outside of the party - finally put the kibosh on it.

It has taken seven weeks to get everyone to publicly admit it is now down to two options.

One - a Fine Gael-led minority coalition, including Independents, with some form of "permission" from Fianna Fáil.

Two - another election.

And let's repeat it one more time: Everybody says nobody wants an election, but at Leinster House they cannot find somebody with the skills to steer them out of those perilous waters.

Yesterday's Dáil session also brought us a first open reference to another increasingly likely prospect. Green Party TD Catherine Martin, in a passionate and brilliant maiden speech excoriating the two main parties' failures to date, also cited a potential intervention by Michael D Higgins.

"This abysmal lack of leadership might yet require the President, in what would be an unprecedented step, to consider exercising his absolute discretion to steer a way forward for the 32nd Dáil," the Dublin-Rathdown TD said.

Whether we hear more of such references depends on the ability of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to surprise us all. Both parties carry among their ranks the most experienced and pragmatic people in Irish public life. It is time they gave us some practical evidence of this.

The Dáil comes back next Wednesday for just its fifth session in eight weeks. It really is past time to quicken up here.

The 15 Independent TDs engaged in government-making talks, who had carried themselves well up to this past week, will also have to take a hard look at their next moves. Yesterday just one of their number, Katherine Zappone of Dublin South West, took a surprise leap of faith and voted for Enda Kenny.

Her courageous and practical decision advances the action just a little. After some speculation that some of them might declare for Micheál Martin, all the others abstained.

The remaining 14 held a meeting at Agriculture House and then issued a statement. "We want the parties to agree on a three-budget programme for a minority government and we are withdrawing from the talks process until that can be agreed," it read.

"We have also made it clear that if the main parties want a facilitator to assist with their talks, that will be made available to them," they said in a sentence which read more like a goad than an offer.

There were conciliatory sounds from both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil last night as calm descended upon Leinster House. But overcoming the belligerent rhetoric from both sides about Irish Water will be a challenge.

In fact, it is probably the very next task.

Irish Independent

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