Friday 28 October 2016

Martin wants a big chunk of government power - from the opposition comfort zone

Published 08/04/2016 | 02:30

Against all odds, approaching his 56th birthday, Micheal Martin had a real chance to become Taoiseach for a spell.

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The only real impediment appeared to be the large number of his troops who had painted themselves too deeply into the "no-truck-with-Fine Gael" corner.

All of that was early yesterday. By today the Fianna Fáil leader and his party look set on becoming the first politicial party in Ireland's history hell bent on turning down power.


Well, Mr Martin, and his eloquent lieutenants, like Billy Kelleher and Willie O'Dea, insist they are just keeping faith with their promises to voters.

They had insisted front, back and sideways, all through the election campaign that they would not coalesce with Fine Gael. Are they to be blamed for keeping election promises?

So, it's all hail Micheál Martin and newly-shriven Fianna Fáil, now hell bent on sticking to the political straight and narrow? This is their contribution to the new politics. They do not want a government with a bloated majority - they want a minority government with a caring-sharing Dáil offering case-by-case comfort and support.

Listening to their protestations yesterday, Fianna Fáil are publicly clinging to the mantra that they can still lead such a minority government. But in walking away from the idea of "Partnership Government" with Fine Gael and some Independents, as offered by Enda Kenny, they also say they are now open to the idea of facilitating a Fine Gael-led minority government.

What really jumped out of Mr Martin's comments yesterday evening, as he put the kibosh on the idea of "Partnership Government," was the lack of any meaningful dialogue in the two meeting between himself and Enda Kenny. Martin spoke of "choreography", contrasted comments made by the acting Taoiseach to him on Wednesday night, with cautious remarks by Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney on radio yesterday morning.

In practice the Fianna Fáil leader was accusing Mr Kenny of bad faith. But he stressed that this was not the real reason for saying "No". That reason was, is, and would remain, the need to keep faith with election promises.

There is little point in us getting involved in time-wasting "he-said and I-said" stuff. We need a government sooner rather than later.

On that basis it is more important to note the peremptory refusal by Mr Martin and the bulk of his parliamentary party to even enter into exploratory talks with Mr Kenny and Fine Gael. In briefings to journalists in the past 36 hours, Fine Gael made it clear that nothing was ruled out - including an equal sharing of government posts, indeed the idea of rotating the office of Taoiseach.

Mr Martin continues to reject arguments that he is putting party before country. But his argument is more than a little strained. This is mainly about Fianna Fáil's future - not about the country.

The reality is that the Dáil numbers, as they currently do not stack up, still require some kind of arrangement between the two big parties. Fianna Fáil clearly could not face the prospect of being inside an arrangement with Fine Gael which left Sinn Féin, and some leftist groups, outside and free to snipe at both with the same shot.

The speed and vehemence of the Martin response clearly showed that party welfare was paramount. In extremis, Mr Martin wants a chunk of government power - but from the comfort zone of the opposition benches.

But yesterday's decision does not really solve his and Fianna Fáil's dilemma. Politics is rarely a cake-and-eat-it world. French small farmers put it better in their old saying: "You must choose between the goat and the cabbage. You cannot have both." In sum, you get nothing for nothing in politics.

Unless, Martin and Fianna Fáil want another election next month. They are going to have to come to some reasonable arrangement with Fine Gael and willing Independents about supporting a minority government. That involves being saddled with some responsibility which would allow Sinn Féin and the others proceed as planned with their two-for-the-price-of-one attack strategy.

You might assume from all of the above that I believe Fine Gael is blameless in all of this. I do no such thing. Back over 42 days, Fine Gael has also been busy taking out fire insurance and trying to have a shilling each way when they can. Mr Kenny's early post-election appeal to all parties and groups to cooperate in the quest for government is still being touted as an alibi for their good faith.

Against that, Mr Kenny has always asserted that because he has seven TDs more than Fianna Fáil, and because he is caretaker Taoiseach, he must seek to form a minority government. That is also why he justifies not for a moment considering the prospect of a minority-government led by Fianna Fáil.

There is also the huge delay in the Taoiseach's first moves to contact Fianna Fáil last week, in contacts which of themselves were not especially edifying. And, finally, there is the continued stubborn presence of Mr Kenny in office with an increasingly questionable mandate.

That said, and in all the circumstances of the past 48 hours' happenings, Enda Kenny emerges with the greater credit. Fianna Fáil can ascribe all the questionable motives they like to the acting Taoiseach's overtures about "Partnership Government." Reality is that such Fianna Fáil inferences and innuendos do not stand up well since they never stuck around long enough to see one way or the other.

For the rest, we are moving a little further downwards on the slippery slope towards an election.

Irish Independent

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