Tuesday 27 September 2016

All's changed: And if you live long enough, you'll see everything in Irish political life

Published 09/03/2016 | 02:30

Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny Photocall Ireland
Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny Photocall Ireland

In the 1980s blockbuster 'Back to the Future', there's a wonderfully knowing exchange where the main character Marty McFly is trying to convince whacky scientist Dr Emmett Brown that he really has travelled back 30 years in time from 1985.

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"Tell me, future boy," asks Dr Brown, "who's President of the United States in 1985?" McFly responds that it's Ronald Reagan - who, of course, in 1955 was known only as a B-movie actor. An incredulous 'Doc' retorts: "Ronald Reagan? The actor? Then who's Vice President? Jerry Lewis?"

Consider for a moment a contemporary Irish take on that gag. Imagine somebody today travelling back in time to 1985 and being asked, who's Taoiseach in 2016?

"It's a revolving Taoiseach - held in turn by the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil as part of a grand alliance," is the reply. "Yeah right," comes the sceptical response. "And who's leader of the opposition? Gerry Adams?"

Just like Reagan becoming US president, it could happen. Sometimes in politics, truth really is stranger than fiction.

Certainly, if you live long enough, you'll see everything in political life. Who'd have thought back in 1985 that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness would one day govern together with such harmony they'd be dubbed the 'Chuckle Brothers'?

Or that Adams, then an MP for West Belfast representing a party still with an abstentionist policy towards Dáil Éireann, would be topping the poll in Louth, one of 23 seats won by Sinn Féin?

But (admittedly with the considerable benefit of hindsight) is it really so surprising? We're approaching the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and the three parties that sprang from the smouldering ruins of the GPO - Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin - dominate the new Dáil with three-quarters of the seats.

Everything changes and nothing changes.

And so it might be with this 32nd Dáil. The most likely scenario in the coming weeks is still a Fine Gael minority government - priced at 4-6 by the bookies. It could possibly also include a grouping of Independents with the Social Democrats and/or the Greens. But, even with them, it would still require support at Budget time by Fianna Fáil - a reverse Tallaght Strategy for the 21st Century.

And, as argued in this column last week, that is probably the best long-term option for this country. The real danger of a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition is that it potentially presents Sinn Féin and Anti Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit as an alternative government in waiting in four or five years. The election just gone showed that, for different reasons, neither is ready for government.

But that doesn't mean there won't be a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition (available at 13-8). Certainly, it's pretty clear that a growing number of Fine Gael ministers and, probably Enda Kenny, want it to happen and are willing to concede on the issue of a revolving Taoiseach to achieve it. You can see why.

The minority option makes them nervous. They worry about being 'in government, but not in power'; where Fianna Fáil can take the credit for the good stuff, but disown the difficult stuff, and pull the plug at a time of its choosing.

There's even a scenario whereby Kenny stands down as party leader - as inevitably he will at some point in the next 18 months - and Fianna Fáil refuses to support his successor for Taoiseach. Why wouldn't Fianna Fáil want Kenny, with his waning popularity, to continue?

Effectively, Fianna Fáil could have a veto over the next leader of Fine Gael or, certainly, its nomination for Taoiseach. No wonder Fine Gael figures are inclined towards Don Corleone's advice: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. "

There's also the prospect of having to do deals with a plethora of Independents and smaller parties to get different legislation through the Oireachtas. The idea of going to Sinn Féin cap in hand looking for support sticks in the craw for traditionalists in Fine Gael.

And, to be fair, there's also a genuine interest in providing a stable government at a time when Brexit, terrorism, a eurozone crisis or even Donald Trump becoming US president could create serious problems for the international economy.

Fine Gael wants a deal and it wants it badly. The problem, though, is that Fianna Fáil certainly doesn't want a deal or at least most of its senior figures don't. Of course, some of it is political calculation - the worries about leaving Sinn Féin to eat its lunch; the tantalising prospect of pulling Fine Gael's strings from the opposition benches, leaving Fianna Fáil well placed to lead the next government, possibly with a rejuvenated Labour Party.

But there's also a bone fide desire to stick to its pre-election commitment not to go into government with Fine Gael and to "do politics differently". And there is real concern that grassroots members simply won't wear a deal with the old enemy. These factors should not be dismissed or discounted.

The reality, though, is that resolve will be tested to the full in the coming weeks.

There'll be enormous pressure from big business, the media and the international markets to "do the right thing by the country" - even if it isn't necessarily the right thing by the country.

In effect, the make-up of the next government - and whether it's a Fine Gael minority or Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil with a revolving Taoiseach - will be decided by who blinks first: Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

Unless, of course, neither blinks. Then forget about 'Back to the Future', it's 'Back to the Country'.

Shane Coleman presents the 'Sunday Show' on Newstalk.com at 10am

Irish Independent

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