Two party leaders on a combined 66 Dáil years can't agree about a phone call
Published 01/04/2016 | 02:30
It is five weeks today since the election - and people are increasingly asking: Is there any end to this? Is there an obligatory deadline for government formation after an election?
And the short answer is: not really. It is more in the realms of what appears politically acceptable.
Yesterday's farcical exchanges between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which followed a potential breakthrough phone call between Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny, were even more disheartening. It all suggests a very poor level of trust between two parliamentarians, who have a combined 66 years' Dáil membership, but cannot agree about the outcome of a 20-minute phone call.
Mr Martin insisted the two parties would not talk until after next Wednesday's Dáil vote on Taoiseach. Fine Gael asserted that talks could start as early as today. At best we have amateurish confusion - at worst this is about very poor faith on one, or both, sides.
Meanwhile, the nearest we come to a firm political deadline is the appointment of the "Taoiseach's Seanad XI" early next month. The 11 Senators nominated directly by the Taoiseach were envisaged in Eamon de Valera's 1937 Constitution as a hedge against the Seanad having an anti-government majority - and generating political deadlock in the system, a kind of deadlock which would not have been as pernicious as that given us by the current Dáil arithmetic.
Forty-three of the other 49 Seanadóirí are elected by city and county councillors, and the final six are elected by some university graduates, with three seats each going to the National University of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin. That process will be completed at the end of this new month of April.
Then it is over to the Taoiseach to pick those 11 members. But the rub is that it cannot be done by an acting Taoiseach. Article 18 of the Constitution stipulates that it must be done "by the Taoiseach who is appointed next after the re-assembly of Dáil Éireann."
Ironically, Enda Kenny wanted to abolish the Seanad by referendum in October 2013, but the voters said "No." Now, we may have found a very practical use for it, after all. The reality is that we would be left with an incomplete parliament or Oireachtas - though here again we do not have a firm deadline for choosing those Seanad XI, just ever increasing political force building to a stark unavoidable choice: a government or a general election.
It all brings us back to a strange circular game of who will blink first. Many of the Independents talking to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are sincere and able people. But they clearly feel they are talking in a vacuum given the Dáil arithmetic .
Galway-Roscommon Independent Denis Naughten eloquently summed up the mood among his colleagues last night as he left talks with Fine Gael at Government Buildings. He said it was all well and good working through sheaves of policy details.
But for Mr Naughten it was worthless without a clear set of ground rules agreed between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on how a minority government would work out in practice.
He argued that these rules must be agreed irrespective of which big party is in the lead position of government - otherwise Independents' support on various policy issues could not be secured. For Deputy Naughten, without guarantees on how budgets and funding would be delivered, any policy agreements are worthless. Similar views have been voiced by other Independent TDs. Everybody is looking towards next Wednesday when the Dáil returns for the third time since the election on February 26. We are unlikely to get a clear outcome from this - but we need a strong signal of hope that a government can be formed soon.
Without such a hopeful signal, we might as well move to a general election earlier rather than later. Nobody - but nobody - wants a general election. But there are doubts on whether our 158 TDs can find the formula to avoid one.
In any early election, it is fair to assume that voters may vent spleen on the ones they feel did not do enough to furnish compromises necessary to government formation. Mr Martin has grounds for arguing that Sinn Féin and leftist deputies, hugging the opposition benches for dear life, are trying to have things every which way.
But could he convince voters of that?