Saturday 22 September 2018

Fianna Fáil 'prepared to extend confidence-and-supply deal by a year' to avoid 'Brexit election'

Micheal Martin Picture: Steve Humphreys
Micheal Martin Picture: Steve Humphreys

Philip Ryan and Shona Murray

Fianna Fáil could be prepared to negotiate a one-year extension of the confidence-and- supply arrangement to avoid a 'Brexit election'.

Senior party sources are anxious to avoid an election during crucial EU negotiations and are willing to discuss a new deal that could extend the Government's tenure to 2020.

Fianna Fáil will now turn the table on Fine Gael and insist it would be "extremely reckless" to call an election while crucial Brexit negotiations are still under way.

The proposal follows two days of escalating tensions between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin over the stability of the Government.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach called on Fianna Fáil to stop sending "mixed messages" about whether it would support the Government in the long term as Brexit talks enter a critical stage

Mr Varadkar said he did not want to get into a "tit for tat" with Mr Martin, but said Fine Gael "really need to understand" whether or not Fianna Fáil is committed to the confidence and supply.

Mr Martin immediately hit back by accusing the Taoiseach of "dishonest" comments while also insisting Fianna Fáil has committed to negotiating a third budget with Fine Gael.

However, as political tensions were rising, senior Fianna Fáil sources revealed the party was anxious to avoid going to the polls ahead of key Brexit negotiations, especially if a deal on Britain's exit from the EU had not been reached.

There are also concerns Fine Gael would target Fianna Fáil's lack of hands-on experience of Brexit negotiations during an election campaign.

Fianna Fáil also does not want to be held responsible for causing an election during the most crucial phases of Brexit talks, while it does not suit the party to begin an election campaign while it is still struggling to match Fine Gael's popularity in the opinion polls.

"If we have a 'no-deal' Brexit, Fine Gael will make a strong argument for stability which might be their grounds for an election, but we will be giving them a stick to beat us with in that scenario," a source said.

The source said the party would have to negotiate an extension of the confidence and supply as a government could not function on "case-by-case basis" agreement.

Another senior Fianna Fáil source said it would be "reckless in the extreme" for the Taoiseach to call an election during Brexit negotiations when the main Opposition party is offering him stability. "It would take a lot of explaining from Leo to tell the public why he went to the polls during the talks," the source added.

Fianna Fáil will seek to push negotiations into January or even February once Budget legislation has passed all stages of the Dáil.

The party does not want an election if Brexit negotiations are still on a knife edge ahead of the March deadline for Britain's official exit from the EU.

But if a clear Brexit withdrawal agreement is finalised ahead of a crunch EU summit in October, Fianna Fáil would be unlikely to extend the confidence and supply agreement.

Within Fine Gael, there is growing speculation that the Taoiseach will call an election in the coming months to seek a mandate for Brexit negotiations. Senior Fine Gael sources believe Mr Varadkar will go to the polls in September just after the Dáil recess and before Budget negotiations.

The move would be aimed at strengthening the Taoiseach's hand ahead of the March deadline for Britain to officially exit the EU.

On Wednesday, Mr Martin accused the Taoiseach of acting like he had a "divine right to power" after Mr Varadkar said he wanted confidence-and- supply negotiations to begin in the summer months.

Mr Martin said the Taoiseach should show Fianna Fáil more respect for giving the country "stability" after the 2016 election. "He needs to cop on a bit. Respect our bona fides in seeing out the agreement. If they think they are going to get a blank cheque before the budget, they can think again," the Fianna Fáil leader said.

The confidence-and-supply agreement states the deal can be reviewed for a possible extension at the end of 2018.

Mr Martin said the Taoiseach should call him if he wanted to discuss the deal.

Irish Independent

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