Monday 17 June 2019

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael still refuse to face the reality of life together

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin (centre) on the canvass with local candiates Fiona O’Loughlin and Sean Ó Fearghaíl in Newbridge, Co Kildare. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin (centre) on the canvass with local candiates Fiona O’Loughlin and Sean Ó Fearghaíl in Newbridge, Co Kildare. Photo: Gerry Mooney
'Nearly two weeks since the electorate decided it was time to arrange a shotgun marriage between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, party members are still denying that the nuptials are going to take place'
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

If Fianna Fáil is willing to prop up a minority Fine Gael government from the opposition benches, what's stopping it entering a formal coalition and wielding some real influence over policy?

If there was ever any doubt that politicians are very bad at sums, the obdurate bluster emanating from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil representatives since last month's General Election has swept it away for good.

Nearly two weeks since the electorate decided it was time to arrange a shotgun marriage between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, party members are still denying that the nuptials are going to take place.

Instead, they are insisting their respective party leaders, with just 50 and 44 seats, can somehow cobble together a government from small parties and Independents. One particularly delusional Fianna Fáil member told one newspaper that a union comprising the Green Party, the Social Democrats and members of the Independent Alliance - a minority government of just 51 TDs - was a feasible option.

Leo Varadkar was spouting similar gibberish in an interview on RTÉ radio with Seán O'Rourke last Friday.

After lots of worthy talk about the importance of stability, and having admitted that policy differences with Fianna Fáil "may not be as big as they are with other parties", he then promptly ruled out the most stable government the current Dáil arithmetic could yield - Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil's combined 94 seats.

"I don't see that happening … I don't see any willingness from either party to put together a coalition," he said.

So, even though members of the two parties are currently working together on local councils all over the country, and despite the fact their policy platforms are complementary, Mr Varadkar isn't "willing" to consider coalition.

What about a minority Fine Gael government supported by Fianna Fáil from the opposition benches? Mr Varadkar doesn't support that either, because any such arrangement would be intrinsically volatile and doesn't meet his all-important criterion of stability.

As Mr Varadkar tries to decide what he hates more - instability or Fianna Fáil - the Soldiers of Destiny have already decided what their preferred option is: supporting a minority Fine Gael government.

Stealing a march on Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil is suddenly championing a whole raft of Dáil reforms, which, if instituted, would have the happy coincidence of ceding power from the executive to the opposition - strengthening its hand in the opposition benches.

This has been the plan since at least August, when Willie O'Dea told the 'Sunday Independent' that he would be "quite open" to a formal "supply and confidence agreement" to support a minority Fine Gael government if the election resulted in a hung Dáil. "I think an agreement like that is infinitely better than Fianna Fáil getting into bed with Fine Gael either as a junior or senior partner," he said, adding that his motivation was to "keep down Sinn Féin" and to "force Fine Gael to implement Fianna Fáil policy".

Not content with trying to control the government, Fianna Fáil is desperately trying to figure out a way to control the opposition too - which, as masterplans go, is certainly ambitious but not particularly democratic.

A raft of Fianna Fáil TDs have said they cannot countenance coalition with Fine Gael as they pointedly ruled that option out in advance of the election, during which they ran on a platform of ousting the current coalition.

The obvious flaw in this logic is that supporting a minority Fine Gael-led government would keep Enda Kenny in office and reward Fine Gael with a bonanza of ministerial positions - a job for everybody in its reduced parliamentary party.

In essence, the government they would be supporting, with its surfeit of Fine Gael members, would be even more objectionable to their supporters than the government they promised to get rid of.

There has been much talk in recent weeks of the Tallaght Strategy - then Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes's decision to support a minority Fianna Fáil government from the opposition benches, but the current situation is not comparable.

Back then, in 1987, Fianna Fáil secured 44pc of the vote and boasted 81 seats, while Fine Gael had 51 seats, having garnered 27pc support. Today, the parties are much more proportionately sized, with just six seats separating them. Consequently, any coalition would be a coalition of equals - not a minnow acting as a mudguard for a larger party, which is how coalition governments usually work in this country.

Why, in those circumstances, would Fianna Fáil opt to support a minority Fine Gael government, getting grief from the public for unpopular decisions without receiving any benefit, when it could instead enter a formal coalition in which members would be back in Cabinet and its policy platform more likely to be implemented? Fianna Fáil TDs who continue to cite a minority Fine Gael government as the preferred option should heed the warning of one anonymous Fine Gael TD who was in office during the Tallaght Strategy.

"It became a very difficult time. You were taking responsibility for something you had no control over. The government didn't tell us too much, but we still had to accept responsibility for the decisions. In the end, we were saying one thing on the doorstep to our constituents and back in Dublin could do nothing about it," he said.

Fianna Fáil may view supporting a minority Fine Gael government as a "temporary little arrangement", that it can pull the plug on at the most opportune time, but the electorate will not reward its cynical strategising.

It's time for members of both parties to stop posturing and jockeying for position and accept the inevitable reality of the election results. Either that or bite the bullet and call another election.

Irish Independent

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