Only grand coalition can avert another election
Published 07/03/2016 | 02:30
Strip out the noise and nonsense. There are four simple options facing our 158 TDs as they return to Leinster House this week after the most indecisive general election in the State's history.
In short order, these four options are: a Fine Gael-led minority government; a Fianna Fáil-led minority government; a grand coalition of these two; or another election very soon.
Let's deal with the last option first. Nobody wants another early election and they will all be trying to avoid it. Elections are expensive in terms of money and human resources.
Ask even the most committed supporter how they feel about pounding the beat once more within weeks and you'll get a pretty short and explicit answer. But that grim reality does not mean our TDs can succeed in keeping this 32nd Dáil from being the shortest lived in our history.
The prospect of forming a minority government, led by either of the two larger parties, is extremely daunting for a number of reasons. Chief of these is simple numbers.
Fine Gael with 50 TDs can, for now, rely on the support of the very battered Labour with their lowest number of TDs since 1932 at seven. Going from 57 to an overall 80 deputies to hold an overall majority is a huge task which would require time, infinite patience and considerable skill.
There is the Independent Alliance with seven TDs; the Social Democrats with three; and the Green Party with two deputies. Then there is the largest available bloc with 16 very varied Independents, each with their own local and personal requirements.
Even if Enda Kenny could pull the magic number together from all of those, there would be considerable doubt about how durable the outcome would be. Would a mixum-gatherum get even one Budget through the Dáil next October?
All the same difficulties apply to Fianna Fáil, but such problems are compounded by starting from a much lower base. With 44 Fianna Fáil TDs, and without the chance of Labour's seven votes, it is much further indeed to that magic four-score deputies.
Even as the deputies showed up last week for orientation and other practical setting-up details, there was a clearly febrile atmosphere. It is not particularly edifying to watch Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil contemplate the prospect of trying to "snooker" one another and avoid that "snooker".
It is lowest common denominator politics. Each party fears becoming the prisoner of the other in a situation where they would have responsibility without power. That is a political hiding to nothing and amounts to taking all the blame and no glory whatever.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin and the Anti-Austerity Alliance People Before Profit remain hidden in plain view as they get ready to oppose the government, whatever government, and if we do get a government, it will be none of their doing.
That is probably the least edifying vista of all in this situation. These people just love opposition and the permanent glow of satisfaction about being right about all the things that are wrong. Compromises around solutions are for others.
The other parties and Independents must not give them a free pass on this. Voters would do well to log their current non-stance and remember it for future reference.
So, we will see our TDs reassemble on Thursday. Already, it is odds-on that they will not achieve very much beyond electing their chairperson, or Ceann Comhairle. That of itself will be of great interest, because it is the first time that it will be done by secret ballot as opposed to an effective appointment by the incoming government, according to the choice of the Taoiseach.
As to the election of Taoiseach, it has become clear since last Friday that we will not have a result. But both Fine Gael, battered and reduced by the election outcome, and Fianna Fáil, emboldened by a good result albeit behind their rivals, want their man to emerge with the largest number of votes. That appears a bit pyrrhic and pointless. But it is sometimes the way politics is played.
We can expect the bulk of the Independents to sit on their hands on Thursday. There appears little benefit for them in showing their hands in this first scene in what could be a drawn-out political melodrama. They also have difficult decisions to make, which could make or break their political careers.
Sinn Féin will try to put a better gloss on their bid to be the main party of opposition by also going through the motions of nominating Gerry Adams for Taoiseach.
But the most important thing here is the use of parliamentary theatre to purge election campaign commitments to shun various coalition options - not least the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil get-together. Discharging obligations and the exclusion of all other options will then bring us closer to political reality.
But first off from then, talk will turn to the important business of Dáil reform. You can expect something very like the proposals already tabled by Fianna Fáil in this matter. These centre around very strict limits on the use of the guillotine, which are at the heart of an overall limit on the government's ability to effectively set the Dáil agenda.
Other measures include earlier and more comprehensive reviewing of legislation; the establishment of a budget review office to cost all budget proposals by all parties; an independent legal officer to advise TDs and senators; and a new regulatory oversight process. These are significant issues well worth taking time with.
It is hard to gauge just how long this reform process may take. Fianna Fáil signalled that it could be done in four weeks, something which would take us beyond Easter. Then, big decisions will have to be made. Already people within Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil privately concede that only a grand coalition can stave off the spectre of an early election.
There are huge impediments and difficulties on both sides which would have to be dealt with. There are many downsides to such an outcome. But it can deliver good durable government.