When it comes to crunch, FF can't count on majority
After an unpalatable budget the coalition may be facing an accidental election, says John Drennan
Like Oscar Wilde's 'love that dare not speak its name' the one issue politicians of every hue were speaking about in private and ignoring in public last week was the possibility of a post-budget general election.
In a logical world, the Government should still be safe.
The death of Seamus Brennan and the exile of James McDaid and Joe Behan from the party whip means that with 75 votes, Fianna Fail are dangerously low in the water.
But the support of the Greens, the PDs and independents Jackie Healy-Rae and Michael Lowry means that with 85 votes they have a definite majority of seven and on a good day the DNA of James McDaid and Joe Behan means this can be as high as nine.
But when you're on effectively your fourth budget in a year, it's a lot more complicated; and when it comes to avoiding an accidental election, a lot will depend on the actual run-in to the budget.
If next week's Exchequer returns are as disastrous as the previous figures or some opinion poll indicates that FF are down at 17 per cent a lot of TDs might begin to think that rather like the economy there is no threshold below which Fianna Fail may fall.
The return of the trade unions to the heart of government could also turn into the political equivalent of children playing with matches.
It would not be a good start to budget day if our trade union heroes do a flit over a 3 per cent increase in the pay levy for all workers and a 5 per cent cut in social welfare
The Fine Gael background of Michael Lowry means that unlike Jackie Healy-Rae he is not connected to FF by any historic ties of loyalty.
If Michael decides that a vote for the most unpopular government in the history of the State will take him out, he will be gone before noon.
Already the government majority is down to five and there is worse news to come, for axing the supplementary childcare allowance would end any hope that Joe Behan and James McDaid would at least abstain.
Instead, it is far more likely that an emotional McDaid will say that while his heart will always be with FF he would be happy with an epitaph where his last political act would be the defence of the rights of Irish mothers.
Should McDaid and Behan actively oppose the budget, with 79 votes the Opposition only needs three more votes and things could get a whole lot tighter.
The Green ministers will stay loyal but Paul Gogarty has been a turbulent priest for some time.
A mix of genuine idealism and the danger of losing his seat to an SF candidate means we could be subjected to a touching scene where Gogarty tearfully tells Gormley 'I love you John' as he disappears over the horizon.
While we expect Mary White to stay loyal should an axe be taken to welfare, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the highly moral (and politically threatened) Ciaran Cuffe will say that while he cannot vote against his party he simply cannot vote for this budget.
Even though such a scenario would still leave the Government with a majority of two they would be in deep trouble. In spite of their outward confidence, the Government would have serious concerns about the support of Noel O'Flynn, Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher, Mattie McGrath, John Browne, Beverley Flynn, Tom Kitt and Ned O'Keeffe.
But when small groups of FF TDs are wandering around like some small, defeated army things could become terribly equivocal. Some FF TDs will be so sick with fear over the shellacking they are going to get from their constituents they will secretly be hoping for the end of the political careers they fought so hard to secure.
Others, though, will be weighing and measuring. For while convention says it would be suicide to go to the country now, if they face the people clothed in the hero's garb of the man who stood up for the pensioners the electorate may spare them.
In such a scenario, all eyes will be fixed upon two figures.
Healy-Rae has been the most loyal Independent of them all but if the interest of the dynasty needs to be served, he owes Fianna Fail nothing.
A short but devastating statement in which Healy-Rae says that while he will not vote against FF he will not follow in the footsteps of Ernest Blythe and vote for the budget means the Government has a majority of one.
Of course, the centre can still hold but all it will take is one blunder on the lines of a warning by Noel Dempsey to Mattie McGrath about the evils of economic treason to open the floodgates.
It would take very little for Mattie, who knows his seat is in the crosshairs of any Labour revival, to issue a statement about how the Republicanism he thought Fianna Fail espoused has nothing to do with targeting social welfare recipients.
Even though the Government would be one vote behind the Opposition, there would still be hope -- for if Cowen was to follow the example set by Garret, go down on bended knee before Finian McGrath and plead for his support, the budget would still be carried by the casting vote of the Ceann Comhairle.
But if the Government's support slips to that extent, even Finian's backing will not save Brian Cowen's house of cards. All eyes would be on serial dissenters such as Ned O'Keeffe but though Ned -- who actually lost the whip for voting against Mary Harney rather than FF -- will be loyal to the end, no one will be able to predict where the danger will come from.
The killer blow could be dealt by one of the long list of figures coming towards the end of their political careers who have no reason to love poor Brian.
No one saw Joe Behan coming last December and if the country gets the budget it needs, the Government could well be sunk by utterly un-known figures such as Christy O'Sullivan, MJ Nolan, Niall Collins or Noel Grealish.
When Bertie Ahern was putting his elaborate coalition together, it was noted at the time that a four-legged coalition was far more secure than one with three legs.
The sad truth is, however, that if Mr Cowen is not very careful he will learn the hard way that if one of the legs falls off it doesn't matter whether you're sitting on a four- or a three-legged stool.
The end result is still the same, and it will be a lot more undignified than any portrait hanging in the national gallery.