Sunday 25 September 2016

Celebrations will be short-lived... we're going back to the polls soon

The biggest risk to government stability is from FF - it is clearly preparing for an election

Eoin O'Malley

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

Shaky ground: Taoiseach Enda Kenny is congratulated as he leaves Leinster House after his historic re-election Photo: Paul Faith
Shaky ground: Taoiseach Enda Kenny is congratulated as he leaves Leinster House after his historic re-election Photo: Paul Faith

And so we got there. Only just, but Enda Kenny got over the line. He made history as the first Fine Gael leader to be re-elected Taoiseach. There won't be much time for celebration though. I doubt any parties have stood down their election plans.

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What will really trouble TDs was the way it got over the line. It was pretty ugly. Last-minute haggling and Independents wrestling with their consciences won't inspire confidence that the Government will last much longer than it took to form. Neither will that be lost on them that four TDs backed out last Friday morning. Some of them, like Mattie McGrath, were never going to sign up - they were enjoying all the attention. But others pulled out because they couldn't accept a deal they'd spent over a month negotiating.

What's to say that even the eight who signed up won't struggle with their conscience all the time? Shane Ross was always regarded as flaky by Fine Gael, and his announcing his appointment to Cabinet before the formal introduction in the Dail must have added to their anxiety. Now they'll be depending on him and others, some of whom have little political experience. And one who has experience, Finian McGrath, was part of one of these deals before and reneged as soon as the road got rough.

All it will take is for two of those TDs to lose the battle with their consciences, then we're back to the country.

But the Independents won't be the biggest source of instability for the new Government.

Independents tend to be pretty pragmatic. When all others were playing party politics, the Independents were the ones who made all the running on government formation. As crazy as Danny Healy-Rae managed to sound last week, his father and the other Independents were like a rock in the 1997-2002 government. Independents tend to have set issues, and once the agreement is stuck they stay the course. The deal with the Independents is much longer, and less local than has ever happened before, but they will also be in the Cabinet to influence ongoing policy.

Having them inside the tent will be a big advantage to this Government. Small parties in government often have wobbles, but they nearly always stay on board. The risk of losing office keeps them on board. It's hard to leave office.

Even though parties (and the Independent Alliance looks and acts like a party) have to make concessions in government, and though losses cause problems for government stability, they rarely bring it down. Losses in government are like slow drips, none on their own are big enough to make you want to leave, but by the time you realise the whole house is flooded, it's too late to go. It's easy to find yourself stuck in government.

And this assumes that the Independents will lose their battles in government. They've done very well out of this arrangement, and are likely to keep winning. So they might have less to fear, except that a new election might not see them go back into government. That should keep them in for the long term.

The biggest risk to government stability is from Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Micheal Martin gave a good speech on Friday, but it sounded like a stump speech. The party is clearly preparing for an election. Martin set out how he sees this Government working. He's going to make demands on Kenny, and Kenny will be minded to give in.

Fianna Fail will be conscious of finding the right issue on which to bring the government down. It won't be water. Fianna Fail might have annoyed more people than it satisfied with the stance on water. An election on water would suit the left, but few else. It will be a problem for Fine Gael, because it has conceded on the issue. Predicting the issue is rarely easy. Changes to Deis schools caused a serious revolt some years ago, something no one predicted.

But if the budgetary process is reformed in a way that allows the Dail take part in its preparation, there should be fewer surprises to cause problems. Fianna Fail will seek to make concessions in that process, and will make it clear that it's an opposition party. The Dail and the Oireachtas committees will be more interesting as ministers will have to make concessions. Fianna Fail will introduce bills to the House, and some of them have a chance of being passed. The Government will suffer a number of defeats, and these will happen in public.

All this will be difficult for Fine Gael, especially Fine Gael backbenchers who will be taking punishment and expected to vote loyally without much input. And now that the Government is formed, Enda Kenny has lost his only remaining power, the power to control the careers of his party. TDs will be good until the junior posts are filled, so Kenny might take his time.

Fine Gael will be destabilised by the leadership issue. All TDs must have got a fright on Friday morning when fresh elections looked a possibility. It must have been doubly worrying for Fine Gaelers who would have had to face that election with Enda Kenny as leader. They'll be looking at ways to remove him sooner than he might envisage.

Kenny was cautious in his cabinet selection. No one was dropped. Dropped ministers are troublesome backbenchers. Radical changes shortened Albert Reynolds's career. Of who we assume are the two pretenders to Kenny's office, Simon Coveney will be pleased with his move to a more interesting department. Leo Varadkar might be less pleased in Social Protection. But neither was obviously preferred for succession.

That was deliberate. But it might not be enough to secure either Kenny's future, or that of this shaky government.

Sunday Independent

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