Thursday 20 October 2016

Kenny told to keep quiet on his coalition options

Taoiseach has yet to tell us how he plans to form a stable government after the general election

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

Let's try again, for the sake of the country: Renua has eased off on the Government attacks recently. So will Enda Kenny and Lucinda Creighton get back together again? Photo: Gerry Mooney
Let's try again, for the sake of the country: Renua has eased off on the Government attacks recently. So will Enda Kenny and Lucinda Creighton get back together again? Photo: Gerry Mooney

Over the past number of weeks, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has been noticeably uncomfortable when questioned on his plans to return his party to power.

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Martin has clashed with nearly every broadcaster in RTE when asked how exactly Fianna Fail is supposed to enter government if he continues to rule out coalescing with Sinn Fein and Fine Gael.

His insistence that both parties are off limits is playing into his rival's hands and making him look more and more like yesterday's man before a single vote is cast.

But amid all his carping on about being vilified by the media, Martin has been making one salient point - why is Taoiseach Enda Kenny not required to reveal who he is willing to do business with after the election?

Martin rightly turns on broadcasters and print journalists - present company included - and insists the media never pushes Kenny on this topic.

There have been attempts to get clarity on the Taoiseach's position but the gaffe-prone Fine Gael leader is under strict instructions from his handlers not to engage in coalition discussions with journalists.

So far the gagging order has worked, but as the election looms and opinion polls clearly show the Coalition will not be returned in its current form, Kenny will be forced to give more clarity.

Last week, Kenny told Matt Cooper on Today FM that he does not "see any circumstances" where Fianna Fail could be in Government with Fine Gael and said his "proposition" to the people is a return of the sitting Coalition.

He said something similar around this time last year after Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney and Health Minister Leo Varadkar suggested going into government with Fianna Fail may not be a bad idea at all.

Varadkar famously said an FG/FF coalition would be like same-sex marriage - strange at first but eventually accepted as the norm, and Coveney said he has no ideological problem with the scenario.

And on Friday, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald danced around the issue during an interview. However, for all intents and purposes she did not rule out Fianna Fail as a potential post-election bedfellow.

It is telling that the three potential heirs to Kenny's throne hold such views, and it gives a significant insight into the direction Fine Gael may take in future years or under different leadership.

But back to the present time.

If we are to take Kenny at his word and there are no circumstances under which he would consider ending the civil war divide and break bread with Micheal Martin, and if Sinn Fein is also off the table, then who is he going to work with?

The polls show Fine Gael will win in or around 65 seats on a very good day, while Labour will maybe take 10, leaving the Coalition four seats shy of the 79 needed to take power.

Last year, the Sunday Independent revealed Fine Gael was secretly wooing four non-party TDs who it was felt might be open to supporting the next government.

The four were Kerry South TD Michael Healey-Rae, Galway's Noel Grealish, former Fine Gael Roscommon-South Leitrim TD Denis Naughten, and controversial Tipperary deputy Michael Lowry.

Within the senior ranks of the party, it is almost taken as given that the party will approach Lowry after the election.

The poll-topping TD is currently locked in a court battle over his tax affairs and facing a Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) interview over the findings or the wMoriarty Tribunal.

And, as with the public, Lowry divides opinion within Fine Gael.

The older more seasoned politicians who came up the ranks with him still consider him 'a good old skin' who would happily support the government as along as he was allowed make a few job announcements in Tipp.

The young turks in Fine Gael, however, are anxious to distance themselves and the party from Lowry.

Renua Ireland, led by former Fine Gael rising star Lucinda Creighton, will seek to target Kenny over his association with Lowry during the election campaign.

Creighton is putting her party forward as a "watchdog in government" which will keep Kenny and Co in check.

Renua is planning to use election posters using images of Lowry under the tag line 'who do you want to hold the keys to the Cabinet?' during the campaign.

Labour sources say they would also have a problem doing business with Lowry and would find it difficult to pass a motion by their party members ratifying a government if he was part of the deal.

"Not a chance in hell will we go in with him," a senior Labour source told the Sunday Independent last week.

Kenny was specifically asked about working with Lowry during an interview at Christmas and noticeably did not rule it in or out.

"It's Fine Gael and Labour for me, and I am not going beyond that. The result of the election will be the people's verdict and we'll wait and see what that is," the Taoiseach said.

Denis Naughten, on the other hand, would be accepted back into Fine Gael with open arms as it is seen his hand was forced when he quit the party over the closure of Roscommon General Hospital's emergency department.

Noel Grealish is also a runner, but Michael Healy-Rae's family associations with Fianna Fail governments of the past does not endear him to some sections of Fine Gael.

So where will this leave Enda in his hunt to fill those vital final seats after the election?

Creighton has publicly said she is open to supporting Fine Gael, but bringing her back into the fold would cause major disquiet within her former party .

"It's so small an option that it's not an option, and it's not just how Kenny feels, it's how the party feels," a TD said.

"It's down to the manner of her departure and how she has attacked the party since then," the source added.

Renua has eased off on the Government attacks in recent weeks in the hope fences could be mended after the election.

Labour is presented with a similar situation with the Social Democrats and Roisin Shortall. There are still sore feelings in the party about her departure in the wake of her row with then Health Minister James Reilly over the locations of primary care centres.

There is also bitterness in Fine Gael on that matter.

Then you are left with Shane Ross and the Independent Alliance.

Both are intrinsically linked, but Fine Gael would like to change that.

Senior figures in the party say the plan, if necessary, would be to pick off TDs from the Alliance and arrange agreements with them individually rather than as a group.

Specifically, they do not want to do business with Ross because they believe he cannot be trusted to support a government for a full-term in office.

"He's too flaky and doesn't seem to know what he stands for, but the rest of the group could be approached," a Fine Gael minister said.

This leaves Michael Fitzmaurice, Finian McGrath, John Halligan and Tom Fleming, and key Government figures see all four as possible coalition partners should they be re-elected.

It will be interesting to see if these politicians of varying backgrounds and ideologies cut and run while shouting "thanks for he memories" over their shoulder at Ross once an offer is put on the table.

There are also other non-aligned TDs, such as Maureen O'Sullivan and Thomas Pringle, who could be approached.

And there is likely to be even more after the General Election.

But speculation aside, a Fine Gael minister last week set out the party's ultimate strategy: "It will be whoever will offer stability at the end of the day."

Sunday Independent

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