Monday 21 October 2019

Breaking up is hard to do when you don't know what comes next


Leinster House (Stock picture)
Leinster House (Stock picture)
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Under the circumstances, the marriage of convenience between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has been reasonably civil.

But it was never meant to last forever and the time has come for them to 'consciously uncouple'.

To be fair, few believed it would survive three budgets and, indeed, a change of leadership in Fine Gael.

For better or worse, they abolished water charges, re-established the National Treatment Purchase Fund, legalised abortion, added €15 to the old-age pension and showed a united front on Brexit.

The question now facing Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin is whether to go for a short, sharp break-up or a gentle separation.

Senior figures in both parties have been weighing up their next move, fully aware that one wrong step could be fatal.

Fine Gael has the most to gain from doing a new deal. Leo Varadkar would get another year as Taoiseach without having to ever win an election from that position. He would also hope the housing sector will be showing some sign of 'turning a corner' by then.

However, there's an opportunistic streak in the Taoiseach who is frustrated by the constraints of the existing Confidence and Supply arrangement.

He views Enda Kenny's decision not to call an election after Budget 2016 as a big mistake. Despite flying high in the polls, Mr Kenny waited until the following February, resulting in him only barely clinging to power afterwards.

Regardless of which decision Mr Varadkar makes, his TDs (most of whom are ministers) will back him fully.

Over at Fianna Fáil, the menu of choices is less palatable. Opinions are hugely divided.

Some TDs believe, particularly those with safe seats, that after nearly three years the 'green jersey' needs to be washed.

On the flip side, nearly half of the party are first-time TDs who know a second election is often the hardest.

Ultimately it will all come down to Micheál Martin. While much of the focus is on Mr Varadkar's gamesmanship, the reality is that the person with the most to lose is the Fianna Fáil leader.

Having served as minister for foreign affairs, enterprise, education and health, he now faces making the most crucial personal decision of his career.

It's difficult to see what he gains from signing a new deal. A one-year extension might give him more time to chase Fine Gael in the polls - but there are no guarantees.

And it will hand an easy stick to a very small rump of backbench TDs who would like nothing more than to beat Mr Martin out of office.

A slim majority in Leinster House believes a deal will be done.

Yet if Mr Martin really believes the Government "does not grasp the scale or urgency of the problems which confront our country" and that Brexit is no obstacle to an election, then there can only be one outcome.

Irish Independent

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