Sunday 21 January 2018

Fianna Gael: Will Enda and Micheál get it together?

It was once unthinkable, but bookies and some pundits believe a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil coalition is the most likely outcome after the election.

Two's company: Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin shake hands as former Labour Leader Eamon Gilmore stands by.
Two's company: Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin shake hands as former Labour Leader Eamon Gilmore stands by.
Michael Noonan
Des O'Malley and Charles Haughey
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil insist that they are not about to jump into bed together politically. But contrary to recent remarks by the Taoiseach Enda Kenny, leading party members have been spotted playing footsie.

The two parties have been giving each other the odd nudge and flirtatious wink in recent months.

The bookies Paddy Power have carefully read the body language between the two parties, and have concluded that the unthinkable is about to happen: after the general election the next government is likely to be a coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The odds are an ungenerous 13/8.

Adrian Kavanagh, lecturer of political geography at NUI Maynooth, has analysed the most recent polls, and believes a "grand coalition" is more likely now than at any time before.

If the bookies are on the money, some time in spring, just days before the centenary of the Easter Rising, Taoiseach Enda Kenny will line up in the Dáil next to his Tánaiste Micheál Martin, and another half dozen or so Fianna Fáil cabinet ministers.

This would end a civil war division that has lasted almost a century, and which, according to some prominent members of both parties, long ago became an irrelevance.

As one former government advisor put it: "You will hear politicians in both parties swear blind that it will never happen, but you shouldn't believe them. Ultimately it will be about parliamentary arithmetic, as it always is with coalitions."

Foreign political scientists, and even our own academics, have long puzzled over the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Even the names seem like a Gaelicised versions of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

According to legend, the former Taoiseach Seán Lemass was once asked what the differences between the parties were. His reported response was: "We're in and they're out."

Back in the early 1980s, the erudite Fine Gael backbencher John Kelly described Fianna Fáil as "the other half of the old Siamese twin".

The parties may bicker in the Dáil with sound and fury, but as they gaze into each other's faces, they can't help but recognise each other's features.

Fine Gael has traditionally been seen as more middle class, the party of big farmers, the Jesuit-educated professions, and business people.

Professor Gary Murphy, head of the School of Government and Law at Dublin City University, says: "Fianna Fáil had a chameleon-like quality and an ability to hoover up votes from all social classes."

Both parties have had a pot pourri of different viewpoints, veering left and right and, between conservative and liberal, grasping to capture the mood of middle Ireland, but often seeming like dynastic tribes.

Frank Flannery, the long-time Fine Gael advisor, says: "During the era of Charles Haughey and Bertie Ahern, Fianna Fáil had the support of business people, but they blew that with the economic crash."

Two years ago Flannery's friend, the late broadcaster Bill O'Herlihy, spoke at the Michael Collins commemoration at Béal na mBláth, and asked a question that is likely to be debated in the coming months:

"Does it make any sense to have the major political parties tussling for power where, for so long, the width of a sheet of tissue paper scarcely separated their policies? There can only be so many rematches."

Michael McGrath, the finance spokesman, has hinted strongly at support for this idea of a grand coalition, even one involving Fianna Fáil as junior partner. While not mentioning Fine Gael by name, Mr McGrath said recently: "It would be arrogant of us to say under no circumstances would Fianna Fáil be a minority partner of a coalition in future."

According to party insiders, the baubles of high office are more attractive to younger politicians in Fianna Fáil, who are less encumbered by historic baggage. And the same is true in Fine Gael.

Leo Varadkar, a potential successor to Enda Kenny, has said a FF-FG alliance would feel like gay marriage - a bit strange at first, but it would quickly be accepted as completely normal.

The notion of a grand coalition has also been supported recently by Varadkar's leading rival to the FG crown, Simon Coveney.

According to Adrian Kavanagh of NUI Maynooth, if Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin agree to coalesce, it will be a marriage of convenience, dictated by numbers.

"If their party vote stays more or less the same as it is now in the polls, they will have limited options."

Fine Gael remains likely to be the biggest party after the election, but Labour's sharp decline may rule them out as a coalition partner. Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are unlikely bedfellows, leaving just Fianna Fáil as a viable partner, unless the Budget gives Enda Kenny's party a boost in the polls.

If they want to go into government, Fianna Fáil have more limited choices. Micheál Martin could overcome his distaste for Sinn Féin, but according to the polls, the two parties would not have numbers to form a government. Martin faces a dilemma as his party goes into an election. If he accepts coalition, he faces the danger that his party will be swallowed up by Fine Gael and subsequently spat out by the electorate. Sinn Féin would be set up as a potential alternative government.

On the other hand, Fianna Fáil may win back little support if it goes to the country as a party that has set its face on opposition.

Former Fianna Fáil deputy leader Mary O'Rourke tells Review: "Ruling out going into government with Fine Gael would be an error of political judgement. Micheál Martin has ruled out Fine Gael and Sinn Fein. If Micheál Martin is waiting until Fianna Fáil becomes the major party of government, he will have a beard growing down to the ground."

Perhaps it is Ms O'Rourke's own background that inclines her to greater unity. She says her father, PJ Lenihan, was a staunch follower of Michael Collins on the pro-treaty side, before he was won over to Fianna Fáil later by Seán Lemass. Her mother was against the treaty.

The former cabinet minister describes the goings-on in the Dáil as "tribal political theatre", and suggests it is time to bury the totem poles and fly the common flag of Collins and De Valera.

The great fear in Fianna Fáil is that it will enjoy the traditional fate of smaller parties in coalition, and be obliterated.

Mary O'Rourke believes the party should recover enough at the next election to have powerful representation at the cabinet table. "The party would not be submerged if the ministers are strong."

Based on the most recent polls, showing Fine Gael on 24pc and Fianna Fáil on 19pc, Adrian Kavanagh estimates that the leading party would have 46 seats and Fianna Fáil would get 32 seats.

On the these figures, Fianna Fáil would expect to have at least six of the cabinet posts. The junior partner usually gets a bonus. So, the party would probably get seven cabinet posts, making up almost half of the government.

If anything, the parties are closer in policy terms than they ever were before. In the past, Fianna Fáil might have been considered more nationalist, but Fine Gael is now busy wrapping itself in the tricolour as the centenary of 1916 approaches. The party has a greener tinge than it did under John Bruton.

And the two big parties are united in the disdain for the common enemy Sinn Féin, with Micheál Martin this week likening that party to the mafia. Civil war politics has already ended in many local councils where the two parties have ganged up to keep the spoils of office away from Sinn Féin.

The parties are closer than ever in their economic outlook, not that they were that different before. When Michael Noonan finally took the levers in government, the path had been set for him by his predecessor Brian Lenihan, and he hardly veered from that course. Fianna Fáil even came up with the idea for a water tax, and Michael Noonan recently gave us a Fianna Fáil-style pre-election giveaway budget.

While a coalition has significant support, there are likely to be members in both parties who will be bitterly opposed to it.

Prof Gary Murphy says: "It will be extremely difficult for Micheál Martin as leader of Fianna Fáil to cross the Rubicon of going into a full coalition with Fine Gael. Could they then differentiate themselves from Fine Gael in any future election?"

If Fine Gael is the leading party and does not have majority support, Prof Murphy believes it is more likely that Fianna Fáil will give it support on crucial votes such as budgets.

Others believe the trappings of office will just prove too tempting, and if the parliamentary arithmetic adds up, the parties will overcome their inhibitions after much soul-searching.

Recent political history is littered with unlikely coalitions, featuring ideological opposites and sworn enemies. Faced with the alluring prospect of power, politicians find it hard to step away.

Don't be surprised if the bookies are right and Enda leaps into bed with Micheál. It will all be done in the national interest "for the good of the country".

32nd Dáil: The grand coalition

Taoiseach: Enda Kenny (FG)

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs: Micheál Martin (FF)

Minister for Finance: Michael Noonan, above (FG)

Minister for Public Expenditure: Michael McGrath (FF)

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation: Simon Coveney (FG)

Minister for Agriculture, Marine and Defence: Éamon Ó Cuiv (FF)

Minister for Environment: Leo Varadkar (FG)

Minister for Health: Frances Fitzgerald (FG)

Minister for Justice and Equality: Niall Collins (FF)

Minister for Education: Mary Hanafin (FF)

Minister for Communications and Energy: Richard Bruton (FG)

Minister for Children: Simon Harris (FG)

Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht: Heather Humphreys (FG)

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport: Dara Calleary (FF)

Minister for Social Protection: Willie O'Dea, below (FF)

Coalition to keep de valera out and other unlikely Alliances

1948: Six party get together

In 1948, it looked as if Fianna Fáil were heading back for power, but after the election no fewer than six parties got together to keep Éamon De Valera out.

John A Costello was elected Taoiseach with support of Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the National Labour Party, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan and several Independent TDs.

1989: Haughey and O'Malley

Charles Haughey and Des O'Malley were bitter political enemies by 1989. After a series of leadership heaves against Haughey, O'Malley was finally dismissed from Fianna Fáil for "conduct unbecoming" and set up the Progressive Democrats. O'Malley was caustic in his assessment of Haughey.

But when FF needed support to go into government after the 1989 election, the deadly rivals overcame their differences to share power.

1992: Spring in bed with Fianna Fáil

Nobody was more withering about Fianna Fáil in the late 1980s and early 1990s than Labour leader Dick Spring. He once likened Charles Haughey to a "cancer that is eating away at our body politic", and described Fianna Fáil as a party dedicated to "greed and unprincipled behaviour". In 1992 he overcame these reservations to form a coalition with Fianna Fáil under Albert Reynolds.

1994: Bruton glued to the Stickies

Fine Gael leader John Bruton, famous for his attempt to tax children's shoes, might have seem diametrically opposed to one time republican marxist Proinsias De Rossa, leader of Democratic Left.

But when the prospect of government arose in 1994, they put aside their differences and joined Labour in a coalition.

2007: Greens land on 'Planet Bertie'

John Gormley, leader of the Greens, coined the phrase 'Planet Bertie' in a fiery anti-Fianna Fáil speech at his party conference in February 2007. "It's a strange place, Planet Bertie.

"So strange and so alien to our sensibilities, that it's a planet that we Greens would like to avoid."

But within four months, Gormley led his party into a coalition with Bertie, taking two cabinet seats, before obliteration at the 2011 election.

Indo Review

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