Tuesday 25 October 2016

Time has come for Independents to get off the fence and back Kenny

Micheal Martin was right to 'break the circle' and call out those who wanted to vote for the 'reluctant Taoiseach'

Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30

Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth - Arthur Conan Doyle

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It is doubtful even Sherlock Holmes would get fully to the bottom of the events that have led to political deadlock this weekend, but such cold, hard logic must now be applied or a government might never be formed.

Or to put it another way, it is time to stand back and let the dog see the rabbit - before the rabbit runs down yet another rabbit hole.

The conclusion we will arrive at is that the acting Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, must set out a clear timeframe as to when he will step down as Fine Gael leader to allow for the election of his successor as party leader and Taoiseach.

But the truth is that the time has now come to 'call out' the Independents and force them to back the only show in town - a Fine Gael-led minority government.

Here is how we can reach that conclusion:

Last weekend, the Sunday Independent reported that the five 'rural' Independent TDs were about to abandon Enda Kenny by a 4:1 majority, which was subsequently denied on RTE and dismissed by the Irish Times.

However, the truth is, whether the ratio was 4:1 or 3:2 - the jury is still out on that - this development did occur and, as such, it represented the first breakthrough in events, which, ultimately, were to run down another rabbit hole last week.

So this is what happened. By teleconference last Friday week, the 'rural' Independents first of all agreed that, come what may, they would stick together; but that agreement was the first thing to fall by the wayside.

A row broke out between them, the details of which we need not go into. The upshot was that when they all hung up, the 'rural' five themselves believed that they had agreed by 4:1 not to support Enda Kenny for Taoiseach, the dissenting voice being former Fine Gael TD, Denis Naughten, who may or may not rejoin the party under a new leader.

However, in the midst of the heated row, the newly elected Clare TD, Dr Michael Harty, did not express a view one way or the other. He was to subsequently deny that there was a 4:1 agreement. So, fine, 3:2 then. It remains a possibility that Dr Harty could be appointed Minister of State in the Department of Health with responsibility for Primary Care.

Meanwhile, Michael Healy-Rae was also a party to the teleconference. He and his brother Danny had decided to hitch their wagon to the 'rural' five because they felt that, as part of a wider group, evident tensions between them would ease.

The two Healy-Raes and two of the 'rural' five, Mattie McGrath and Noel Grealish, were to the fore last week in urging the combined Independents to vote for Micheal Martin as Taoiseach.

But before we get to that, let us now turn to what happened next, that is, last Monday night.

That was the first time Micheal Martin picked up a telephone to begin to indicate to all, or most, of the Independents that he actually, genuinely wanted to be Taoiseach in a Fianna Fail-led minority government.

At that point, there were doubts among many Independents - all of them, in fact - that Martin really wanted the job. The belief among the Independents was that Fianna Fail was making a pretence of wanting to lead a minority government, but really wanted to have it both ways, the ultimate intention being to lead the Opposition and then pull the plug on a Fine Gael-led minority government at an opportune time of its choosing.

The Fianna Fail leader followed up his Monday night calls with more calls on Tuesday, to most, though not quite all, of the Independents, including the Independent Alliance.

In fact, there were several calls then and on Wednesday between Martin and Shane Ross and also with Michael Fitzmaurice, who at that stage was aware that his constituency colleague, Denis Naughten, was in position to be appointed to the Cabinet in a Fine Gael-led minority government.

The upshot of these calls was that Micheal Martin was sure of the support of at least three, if not four of the 'rural' Independents and, he believed, all six of the Independent Alliance, which to date has shown remarkable resilience in sticking together.

So by Wednesday afternoon, the Fianna Fail leader could reasonably have expected the support of 10 to 12 Independents, including the Healy-Raes.

That is, Micheal Martin had enough support among the Independents to draw level with, if not move ahead of Enda Kenny in the race to be Taoiseach.

As a result, there would be enormous pressure on Fine Gael to relent and finally commit to supporting a Fianna Fail-led minority government.

While these negotiations were under way, however, Fine Gael was upping the ante.

To the Independents, Fine Gael seemed to be increasingly desperate as last week wore on. There are accounts that the Independents were asked to email in their top 10 local pet projects in return for supporting Enda Kenny; there are further accounts that several million euro had been earmarked in the Department of Agriculture, but that the Independents would have to sign-up to Kenny before last Thursday's vote for Taoiseach, and that those who did would have the funds dispersed on a 'first come, first served' basis.

One Independent put it like this last week: "Fine Gael is scraping the bottom of the pork barrel." That said, however, there is also ample evidence to suggest that many of the Independents had issued outrageous demands for their support that simply cannot and should not be met.

While this naked politicking was going on, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail negotiators were in meetings, issuing tentative statements as to cordial relations, but going nowhere in terms of the real issue, as far as Independents were concerned: would Fine Gael support a Fianna Fail-led minority government? The long and short answer was No.

Fine Gael, meanwhile, was intimating to Fianna Fail that it had secured the support of enough Independents to hit the magic number of 58. The Fine Gael target list was, and remains: Denis Naughten and Dr Michael Harty of the 'rural' five; Kevin 'Boxer' Moran and Sean Canney of the Independent Alliance; Katherine Zappone, Maureen O'Sullivan and Michael Healy-Rae.

So what happened next?

Last Wednesday night, RTE News cited senior Fianna Fail sources in reporting that Micheal Martin had issued a 'put up or shut up' demand to the Independents; that is, to back him for Taoiseach on Thursday or he would not allow his name go forward for the position again.

There are two schools of thought in relation to this. One is that Fianna Fail deliberately sabotaged its own bid to have Micheal Martin elected Taoiseach.

That is denied by Fianna Fail, which maintains that this is not the case, although this weekend, the view remains among Independents across the board that, yes indeed, Fianna Fail did scuttle its own efforts.

There is reason to have some sympathy with that view.

The second view is that Micheal Martin felt he needed to 'break the circle'. He was aware from the official negotiations that Fine Gael was unwilling to confirm support of a Fianna Fail-led minority government. He had informed the Independents of this.

The Independents were divided: some intended to show their hand on Thursday and vote for Micheal Martin; others intended to do no more than call on Fine Gael to offer a reciprocal support to a Fianna Fail-led minority government.

On Wednesday night, the Independents who are minded to back Micheal Martin made strenuous efforts to have him withdraw his ultimatum. He undertook to consider doing so overnight. The following day, however, his ultimatum was not withdrawn.

The upshot was that on the Thursday the Independents joined forces, signed a statement which called for Fine Gael to agree to a reciprocal arrangement, but they continued to sit on the fence where many are most comfortable.

Fianna Fail was to later confirm its stance: it was headed to Opposition, where it would 'facilitate' a Fine Gael-led minority government. So what happens now?

Enda Kenny has the support of two Independents, Katherine Zappone and, more contentiously, Michael Lowry. He needs the support of another six, probably eight, to form a minority government.

The view seems to be that he will now secure their support, but that is more easily said than done.

Meanwhile, Fine Gael continues to work on Labour, the Greens and the Social Democrats: these parties are divided and may abstain in the election for Taoiseach, an outcome that would reduce Kenny's reliance on Independents to Zappone and Lowry.

For the other Independents, the involvement of Michael Lowry is a difficulty; the involvement of Zappone is also a difficulty because at least five Independents are unwilling to support a deal with her that will lead to a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution related to abortion.

But the biggest problem of all remains Enda Kenny himself.

A further six or eight Independents could be gathered up to support an alternative Fine Gael leader, but all the Independents remain anxious about public reaction to the re-election of Kenny.

Fine Gael will, outwardly, stand by its man, a leader who took the party from virtual extinction to the verge of an historic two successive terms; but privately, party bigwigs have been suggesting to the Independents that Kenny will step down within months.

There are other issues which continue to militate against a Fine Gael-led minority government: the future of Irish Water, for example.

These are fine details which, unresolved, have the capacity to torpedo the formation of a government and lead to another election within weeks.

This weekend, however, the Independents are more concerned about Kenny than anything else.

But the time has come for the them to get over themselves.

The shenanigans have gone on for long enough. This week they must back Enda Kenny, or get off the pitch to allow others to form a government.

That said, a statement from the acting Taoiseach as to his future intentions would help and, more likely than not, see him re-elected on Wednesday, provided the statement outlined the circumstances in which he intends to stand down, sooner rather than later.

In the absence of such a statement, the political uncertainty will probably remain and, with each passing day, make another general election more likely.

Sunday Independent

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