Jody Corcoran: How Kenny is putting a government deal together
Micheal Martin let the Fine Gael leader know on Friday, March 4, that a 'grand coalition' was not on, writes Jody Corcoran
As the Sunday Independent reported two weeks ago, Enda Kenny was first off the blocks to offer various deals to Independent TDs and smaller parties with a view to forming the next government, in the process securing his leadership and creating history as the first ever re-elected Fine Gael Taoiseach.
While Fianna Fail was still celebrating its election success, Kenny dispatched his fellow Mayo man, Senator Paddy Burke of Fine Gael, to hit the telephones with offers of positions at Cabinet, Ministers of State and chairman of Oireachtas committees.
The commentariat dismissed our revelation, as they have been prone to do, insisting instead on what was always the second most unlikely outcome: a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail grand coalition. But Kenny was two steps ahead, and had already turned the heads of the Independents, in particular, with the promise of high office. The most unlikely outcome, by the way, is another election. That is not going to happen.
Two days before our revelation, Enda Kenny was made to realise that the so-called grand coalition was never going to happen. The message was relayed to him by Micheal Martin, no less. under no circumstances would Fianna Fail enter a coalition with Fine Gael. That's what the Fianna Fail leader had told Independent TDs. And what's more, he told them they could go back and tell the Taoiseach that too. In fact, Micheal Martin let it be known that he would be happy to go to the country again rather than break an election promise and enter coalition with either Fine Gael, or Sinn Fein for that matter.
So, since March 4, Enda Kenny was aware there would be no grand coalition; in fact, with Michael Noonan in an adjoining room, he rang several Independents back that night to check precisely what it was that Martin had told them. The message was crystal clear, so Kenny then set about his business in earnest, aware that he needed all the support he could get to see off Fianna Fail's pretentions of a minority government - and to save his own skin.
With that in mind, he bigged up his two key negotiators, Simon Coveney and Simon Harris. The two Simons, more than anybody else, have emerged as the main influencers behind the scenes. If Kenny manages to pull off the most audacious bid in decades to form a government, and this weekend the odds are he will, then Coveney and Harris are the men - possibly the next Taoiseach and Minister for Finance respectively, when Kenny and Noonan step down within two years.
Because that is what Kenny has also promised the Independents and smaller parties: more than that, he is adamant he will resign as Taoiseach within that period, and Noonan will go with him - that is if Noonan is reappointed in the first place, such are the rising stars of Coveney and Harris. Although the likelihood is Noonan will hang on for as long as Kenny does - 18 months, give or take.
What of Leo Varadkar? The health minister is being blamed this weekend for messing up negotiations with the Social Democrats. "He was the wrong man, in the wrong place at the wrong time," a source said of the classical liberal politician sent in to do a deal with two former Labour ministers and Stephen Donnelly last week. The outcome of that was that the Social Democrats publicly announced it would not do a deal with Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.
There is also a wiser view that the Social Democrats never intended to enter government anyway, and have, instead, longer-term ambitions to build the party from Opposition.
The withdrawal of the Social Democrats has changed the arithmetic: Fine Gael has 50 votes, 51 if we include Michael Lowry, and Fianna Fail has 43.
Lowry's motivation is easy to understand. Fine Gael does not have any TDs in Tipperary. Whether Enda Kenny wants Lowry's support or not - he does, but cannot say so publicly - Lowry will be in a strong position to leverage deals for his constituency.
That leaves the other, mostly rural Independents, Greens and Labour to play for. Within that, there are all kinds of manoeuvres under way this weekend, the most significant of which is Fine Gael's attempt to break up the Independent Alliance. Say hello to the next Minister for Agriculture, Michael Fitzmaurice…
The Roscommon TD, with new TDs Kevin 'Boxer' Moran and Sean Canney, now looks set to break from Shane Ross and Finian McGrath. Enda Kenny is no "political corpse" after all, it would seem. Within the Independent Alliance, they have taken to referring to Ross as "Shane Fein".
The Fine Gael tactic is clear. The party lost 11 TDs in Munster, for example, and haemorrhaged support throughout rural Ireland. The message to Enda Kenny was equally clear, and the message was from rural Ireland, not the Twitterati busily talking to themselves in Dublin. Kenny has listened.
So, right up there with "parliamentary reform" is the issue of "rural regeneration". Truth be told, rural regeneration is the real promise that looks set to push Enda Kenny over the line. Say hello to the new Minister for Rural Affairs, Michael Healy Rae, one of the smartest politicians in the country. Fact is, he would make a fine minister, and his brother can look after the constituency.
Now things start to get a little more complicated for Kenny: a third group of rural Independents will be harder to win over. They are Denis Naughten, Noel Grealish, Mattie McGrath, Michael Collins and Dr Michael Harty. These men remain unsure. Three among them - Naughten, Grealish and McGrath - could be appointed to Cabinet and/or Minister of State, but there is more to it than that.
Naughten has difficulties with Kenny - for example, related to the abandonment by Fine Gael of Roscommon Hospital; Grealish is aware he was elected on substantial Fianna Fail transfers; McGrath is gene pool Fianna Fail, and like the others, feels the electorate voted against Enda Kenny. Collins and Harty also campaigned against the outgoing Government. So there remains the prospect that Fianna Fail could win their support - if it really wants to.
These five Independents are also concerned about the stability of a Fine Gael-led minority government, and motivated by political reform. However, they may be convinced by Fine Gael to go with a radical rural regeneration agenda. The re-opening of garda stations and post offices in their constituencies can be a powerful motivator. If they do, Kenny will have over 60 votes and be virtually unassailable. Throw in Thomas Pringle, Maureen O'Sullivan and Katherine Zappone and he has almost 70. Throw in a Labour abstention on April 6 and Kenny has more than 70. Throw in the Greens and he has 76. Say hello to Eamon Ryan, the new Minister for the Environment, to include responsibility for climate change policy.
So where does all of this leave Fianna Fail? The new government will still require that party's support. This weekend Fianna Fail has circulated its 53-page government programme document to Independents and other parties. We publish large sections of it today. By and large it is cut and paste from its election manifesto, but gives the impression that it was put together in haste.
The above scenario, in fact, leaves Fianna Fail precisely where it wants to be: in Opposition, holding off Sinn Fein, blooding its new TDs, and forcing the implementation of a number of red-line issues for its tacit support. This weekend a senior Fianna Fail TD told me: "We will be the greatest beneficiaries of all."
The next election will take place shortly after Enda Kenny steps down, possibly to run for the Aras. Simon Coveney will need his own mandate, after all. The Independents will start to desert, and Fianna Fail will be poised to take 60 seats.