Sunday 25 September 2016

'Slow bicycle race' to the election nearing its end

Published 14/12/2015 | 02:30

'This Government ended on Budget day. It’s time to go.'
'This Government ended on Budget day. It’s time to go.'
Three dances

They're off for the Christmas break on Thursday next and they may not be back before the general election. Any way you look at it, the sooner this election is held, the better it will be for all concerned.

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THEY'RE off for the Christmas break on Thursday next and they may not be back before the general election. Any way you look at it, the sooner this election is held, the better it will be for all concerned.

At Leinster House, it's pick a rumour time. Most people have their favourite polling date - for all the good that does. It is only one man's favourite polling date, that of the Taoiseach, which counts.

There's a strong constituency still going for Friday, March 11. That one has the appearance that, irrespective of the poll outcome, Enda Kenny would still be Taoiseach for the St Patrick's Day visit to the White House, and for the Easter 2016 centenary celebrations. Lesser details have decided things in the past.

But this past week, there was much talk that the election could be called earlier. There were mutterings that the starting pistol might be fired early in the new year, with polling itself either at the tail end of next month or some time in early February.

Speculation about this is tied to the uncertain fate of the report of the parliamentary inquiry into the banking collapse. There are persistent doubts that a final report may not be published on the due date of January 28. Such a development would be a blow to the chairman, Ciarán Lynch, and several others who worked inordinately hard, but it could obviate the need to bring back the Dáil after Christmas. Enda Kenny could just scoot up to the Phoenix Park and do the needful with President Higgins.

We shall see. History teaches us that this kind of febrile atmosphere feeds speculation which is often swiftly overtaken by events. Naming that election date is a fun game - but it is quickly rendered passé by events once the election is actually called.

But it would be a mercy to end the slow bicycle race towards the general election which has passed for political discourse in recent weeks. The reality is that this Government really ended on Budget Day, October 13 last. It has been dragging its heels around Leinster House and Government Buildings since then.

On the Fine Gael side, politicians and their staff wistfully opine that it could all be over and done with, if Enda Kenny had got his way and had that November election. Fine Gael people add that Labour's insistence on waiting until the new year, and hoped-for better political conditions, have not done them much good. Labour principals continually keep the bright side out. They talk of hopeful signs on the doorsteps and their chosen stalwarts' ability to battle through adversity. But their's is an exceptionally difficult position right now.

The latest of the ongoing slew of opinion polls landed yesterday and offered several points of intrigue. The Behaviour & Attitudes poll for 'The Sunday Times' brought early seasonal tidings of great joy for Fine Gael, up five points to 31pc. But their Coalition partners Labour, though up one point to 8pc, remain stubbornly in single digits.

The redoubtable political geographer in NUI Maynooth, Adrian Kavanagh, guesstimates that this could give Fine Gael 64 TDs and Labour just seven. The ubiquitous and diverse 'Independents and Others' were put on 24 TDs by Mr Kavanagh. It is reasonable to speculate that this number could provide enough reliable and seasoned politicians to pull together a new Kenny-led coalition.

In the magic game of '79-plus', for a majority in the new 158-seat Dáil, that just might be what we are looking at: a returned Coalition of 'Fine Gael, Labour and friends'. It's a reasonable theory - but it's still only a theory.

Back in February 1948 - the general election that historians will increasing look upon for comparison with today's situation - everyone assumed Éamon de Valera's Fianna Fáil would just stitch together a minority government deal. He returned 68 TDs and the 147-seat Dáil meant he only needed another half dozen or so.

Surely, Dev could pull together the required support from the two squabbling factions of Labour and/or a number of Independents?

Well, he could not, as Fine Gael, with just 31 TDs, and the new kids of the block Clann na Poblachta with just 10 deputies, pulled together an "ABFF" coalition. Despite its mosaic composition, it lasted three years and three months, a creditable enough period for those times. That lesson from history is that we cannot make too many assumptions.

Many observers, including this writer, put great emphasis on the absence of a viable alternative Taoiseach to Kenny on the opposition side next time.

Back in 1948, few would have put any money on Fine Gael's John A Costello to emerge as a compromise, and rather reluctant, Taoiseach. But that is what happened.

We have repeatedly noted that the upcoming election will be fought on a series of declarations that A will not coalesce with B, and C will always shun both A and B.

But once the 32nd Dáil is convened, and no overall government is immediately discernible, that situation will change.

Those election campaign "no-coalition" pledges can be purged by a formal but unsuccessful vote in the chamber. Then a new and brutally honest game would begin in uncharted territory.

Irish Independent

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