Friday 18 October 2019

Why you shouldn't bet against this Dáil lasting to 2019 - despite tensions

Micheál Martin. Photo: Damien Eagers
Micheál Martin. Photo: Damien Eagers

Shane Coleman

Frances Fitzgerald may be gone but the trail of the destruction left behind her in Government Buildings remains - leaving many to doubt it can be repaired in the lifetime of the 32nd Dáil.

In her resignation statement, Ms Fitzgerald spoke of her desire to avoid a "potentially destabilising general election". The election bit has been averted - for now at least - but it was a little late in the day to be worrying about destabilising things.

The casualty list from her astonishingly incompetent handling of the latest chapter of the Maurice McCabe saga includes the Taoiseach, the current Justice Minister, and the confidence-and-supply agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Leo Varadkar has been seriously (though not, it should be stressed, fatally) damaged by events. His decision - until the sheer weight of the case against Ms Fitzgerald belatedly forced a rethink - to back his minister to the point where he was willing to bring about a general election, was extraordinarily cavalier and has proven hugely costly.

There's plenty of Taoisigh past who had to bow to the inevitable, and reluctantly accept the resignation of a minister. Charlie Haughey did it with Jim McDaid, as did John Bruton with Phil Hogan. In neither case did the minister deserve to go. But realpolitik demanded it, just as it did the last time a tánaiste was forced out - in the case of Brian Lenihan Snr. It's deeply unpleasant, but they're the rules of the game in which Taoisigh operate.

Whether through arrogance, naivety or blind loyalty - perhaps a combination of all three - Mr Varadkar seemed to think this time would be different. Maybe he thought Micheál Martin would blink first. He misread the situation, gambled and lost - massively so.

Perhaps Ms Fitzgerald's overall handling of the whistleblower controversy will ultimately be vindicated by the Disclosures Tribunal. But that still won't explain the sorry saga of the emails. To put it politely, her version of events stretched credibility, even before the emergence of the other emails. And that seriously calls into question the Taoiseach's judgment in going out on a limb for her.

It was bad enough a succession of ministers had gone to war for their colleague after the story broke. But right up to late Monday night, hours after the new emails emerged, senior Government ministers were bizarrely still defending the indefensible.

What was Mr Varadkar thinking? The bookmakers today have him and Mr Martin as joint favourites to be Taoiseach after the next general election, but there's little doubt the pendulum, for now, has swung in Fianna Fáil's favour.

We in the media tend to overstate 'victories' or 'climb-downs' in political disputes. Voters are mostly too busy getting on with their lives to know, or care much, about such nuances. Certainly, a month or two later, they have completely forgotten. But there's no question Mr Varadkar's authority has been undermined. Time will tell just how seriously.

The one consolation for Fine Gael is that having secured a political head, Fianna Fáil will be at pains not to fuel the controversy. Which is just as well, because Charlie Flanagan's handling of the situation has hardly been convincing. The question as to why these three emails, despite their obvious relevance, were not sent to the Disclosures Tribunal is also troubling. Pragmatic political reasons, however, should ensure any further political fall-out in the short term is limited.

Despite that, opposition TDs and political journalists were tripping over themselves yesterday to call time on 'new politics'. 'A general election in the spring' was the confident prediction of most.

You can understand why. Trust has taken a hammering. How can Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil realistically expect to work together in any way harmoniously for another year or more?

But politics is a funny business and things can change massively in a very short period of time. On Thursday night, there were widespread predictions that a Christmas general election was inevitable. But when TDs went home to their constituencies and tempers cooled, the momentum shifted.

The bitterness there on Thursday and Friday between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - exacerbated by juvenile cheering from FF deputies in the members bar when Jim O'Callaghan made his intervention on the 'Six One News' - has already diminished. Fine Gael TDs now surely realise that Ms Fitzgerald was the author of her own misfortune, and that Mr Martin had little choice but to do what he did. If they don't, the Christmas period will further help calm tempers.

Not just TDs. The Taoiseach needs to realise that Fianna Fáil is keeping his Government afloat, and that gives that party certain privileges. His approach of disrespectfully eyeballing FF had echoes of Albert Reynolds's attitude to coalition partners. It shouldn't take a fall of a Government for him to realise a Bertie Ahern-style partnership approach is what's needed.

The reality is it's in both FG's and FF's interest to keep the Government going. By doing so, they can prove the centrist, middle-ground approach actually works. An early election scuppers that. The past few days should help drive that home.

The other major weakness in the argument that a general election is "inevitable" is another obvious lesson from the past few days: the public don't want one.

If voters were overwhelmingly opposed to going to the polls over this hardly inconsequential controversy, it will clearly take something really substantial to justify an election in their eyes.

It's possible such an issue will arise. But it's more likely it won't.

With the massively important issue of Brexit likely to dominate politics for the coming months, the 'national interest', as well as political self-interest, may require the two big parties to swallow hard and give their relationship another go for the good of the country.

There will be tensions. And things could still go horribly wrong. But don't rule out the current Dáil defying expectations and running until early 2019.

Shane Coleman presents 'Newstalk Breakfast', weekdays from 7am

Irish Independent

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