Saturday 1 October 2016

Sinn Féin and Social Democrats get off lightly by refusing to get their hands dirty

Published 12/04/2016 | 02:30

Gerry Adams with members of Sinn Féin at Leinster House. 'Both the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin have got off incredibly lightly for their refusal to get their hands dirty with the business of forming a government.' Photo: Tom Burke
Gerry Adams with members of Sinn Féin at Leinster House. 'Both the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin have got off incredibly lightly for their refusal to get their hands dirty with the business of forming a government.' Photo: Tom Burke

The threat of the nuclear option - another General Election - has receded dramatically in the last couple of days. To use US military parlance, we were at DEFCON 2 (next step election) last Thursday, after the Cold War-like exchanges between Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin prompted a frenzy of media speculation about resumed hostilities. We're now at DEFCON 4 (above normal readiness) after Leo Varadkar and Jim O'Callaghan met over the weekend.

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It's certainly not a done deal yet, but we should be down to DEFCON 5 (election posters into storage), if not on Thursday, but by Wednesday week when a government is finally formed.

In truth, the election talk was overstated. Politics is ultimately a game of self-preservation. It's hard to imagine any of the 158 TDs would want another election. The odds always strongly favoured some sort of deal being cobbled together to form a government. Those odds have narrowed further since the weekend.

The nature of that deal is still up for grabs, however. The most likely outcome is a government made up of Fine Gael and Independents, supported from the outside by Fianna Fáil.

But it's not the only option. A Fianna Fáil-led minority government can't be entirely ruled out. Given both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are well short of a majority - and will need the backing of the other to govern - it mightn't hugely matter if the main government party has 50 or 43 seats.

The Independents will decide who gets the Taoiseach's job. If enough of them want Micheál Martin, there will be an onus on Fine Gael to row in behind and support that from the opposition benches. That would mean curtains for Enda Kenny.

It probably won't happen but, given the number of Independents who can be traced back to the Fianna Fáil gene pool, it's not an impossibility.

The word is that many of the Independent Alliance and the rural alliance Independents, unconvinced by Kenny, are breaking to Fianna Fáil but are worried about the long-term viability of a Martin-led administration.

So it's still not guaranteed that Kenny will be returned as Taoiseach. If enough of the Independents regard him as a deal-blocker, then perhaps we could even see a repeat of what happened in 1948.

Back then, Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy stepped aside and allowed John A Costello become Taoiseach to ensure a deal could be reached with the smaller parties and Independents.

What would absolutely nail it for Kenny, though, is if Labour re-entered the fray.

The party and its key figures are hurting badly right now. But they would be unwise to discount the obvious advantages for the party of being in government.

Seven TDs would get the party two seats at Cabinet - at least one junior and a number of Seanad nominations.

That might offer a better platform to rebuild than sitting on the opposition benches, dwarfed by either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, and drowned out by the more hardline left-wing groups and TDs.

It shouldn't be forgotten that Labour actually campaigned to be returned to government with Fine Gael. Those who voted in their seven TDs did so on that basis.

If Labour went for it, so in a heartbeat would the Green Party (who pulled out of the talks only because they wanted a genuine Rainbow government, rather than being out-muscled by Independents who'd be largely unsympathetic to Green values). And that in turn would put enormous pressure on the Social Democrats to get off the fence.

Both the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin have got off incredibly lightly for their refusal to get their hands dirty with the business of forming a government.

It's always dangerous to try and ascribe motives to an entire electorate. But it's a fair guess that nobody was elected to be a spectator, as opposed to a participant.

The Social Democrats actually said during the campaign that it would consider government with Fine Gael. Sinn Féin, to be fair, didn't. But the party's shrill insistence that Fianna Fáil should do what it won't - and break a pre-election commitment - is risible and not a little hypocritical and self-serving.

Adams & Co won't budge, however. The Social Democrats should. A Fine Gael-Labour-Social Democrats-Green-Independents government would, as this column pointed out last week, come as close to having a majority as almost makes no difference.

Even without backing from Fianna Fáil, it would take quite a set of circumstances to bring it down.

It makes sense, but it probably won't happen. Which leaves it all down to the two main parties and, of course, the Independents - the kingmakers. The jury is out on whether the Independents have what it takes to provide an effective government.

The word coming from the negotiations that some of them were complaining about there being too much planning restrictions and regulations doesn't inspire confidence. And there is a very local - dare we say parish pump - flavour to what some of them are seeking.

There remains a very genuine concern that it will result in a 'one for everyone in the audience', populist government, lacking in vision and unwilling or unable to make any tough decisions.

'New politics' will produce a government at some point in the next nine days - we just can't be sure it'll be any good.

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

Irish Independent

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