Monday 10 December 2018

If there is to be a grand coalition it can only happen with Fianna Fáil as top dogs

Cartoon irish Water
Cartoon irish Water
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

As with earthquakes registering 10 on the Richter scale, it takes days to search through rubble to find remaining survivors. For Labour and Fine Gael, the political body count amounts to an epic disaster, ending the careers of household names like James Reilly, Jimmy Deenihan, Alan Shatter, Alex White and Emmet Stagg.

Fine Gael is reduced to 2007 levels; Labour has no modern precedent for a wipe-out. Who'll take responsibility for such a crisis of casualties? Neither leader has chosen to yet consider their positions. It won't be long before colleagues make those decisions.

Political leadership survives on results. Enda Kenny and Joan Burton still hold high office, but they're politically dead people walking. No circumstances exist where either leader will remain for the next election. Pundits pointing to their inevitable demise since the local elections were dismissed as partisan naysayers. If anger is not a policy, denial isn't much better.

The Taoiseach's biggest failing is an inability to absorb criticism. Phil Hogan was one of few people able to tell Kenny bluntly about reality. Kenny's minders, principally Mark Kennelly, have done him a huge disservice by cocooning him away from the media, ordinary people, and the actuality of economic/social hurt. His crazy comments about "whingers" lost Fine Gael seats - including Michelle Mulherin's in Mayo.

Kenny's last televised interview of the campaign was at TV3, when intriguing handwritten notes containing words to be repeated were left behind: "Empathy, empathy, empathy". They remind us how out of touch he was. He won no Oscars for empathetic campaigning.

Only extraordinary vote management avoided complete annihilation, as Fine Gael won seats miraculously in Meath East, Dun Laoghaire, Limerick county and Galway West. Shell-shocked Fine Gaelers now want to hear when Kenny will quit.

They'd prefer not to heave - but won't hesitate to move against him soon.

New Fine Gael rules to elect a leader are cumbersome. Councillors and party members - plus parliamentarians - now form part of an electoral college to make selections. This process can take several weeks. TDs are now checking the procedures for expeditious succession.

Michael Noonan must take responsibility for key strategic errors of contextualising Fine Gael's campaign in the fictional 'fiscal space' - and, even worse, getting those sums wrong. Betting party fortunes on abolishing USC revenues of €4bn misjudged the electorate's preference for vital public services. Not a single word of contrition has been proffered.

Since November, every move by the Fine Gael leadership (including not opting for early election) has been a misstep. Clinging to the party presidency cannot be an option for Kenny, irrespective of the precarious nature of maintaining a government. This day next week, he'll be forced to formally resign as Taoiseach, having failed to obtain a Dáil mandate on his nomination. His caretaker role is a eunuch nightmare, captive to a majority on the opposition benches who'll decide the timing of termination. .

While this drama unfolds, Fianna Fáil plots with one plan in mind - to become the largest party after the next election. It smells blood. It has no interest in a grand coalition to prop up Fine Gael in government. What it wants is a temporary arrangement, sufficient time to reload in marginal constituencies with additional candidates and geographic vote plans to maximise extra seats.

The air and ground war becomes a chess game. Micheál Martin's first move is clever: A programme for parliament sets out political reforms to rectify a historic mismatch between the Executive (Cabinet/permanent civil service/ government) and the Oireachtas.

Parliamentarians do battle with ministers without proper fiscal or legal advice equivalent to that of the Attorney General's office. Fianna Fáil proposes an 'Independent Legal Adviser' and 'Independent Budget Review Office'. Dáil business should no longer be dictated by the government chief whip, including guillotines and rushed bills. This will go down well with all TDs, who resent their dismissed impotency.

This may be a diversionary tactic from the substantive issue of forming a new government. It may provide a future basis to enhance an opposition role in sustaining a lame-duck minority government. Or it could be entirely irrelevant to what subsequently may emerge.

In any event, it places Martin in a leadership role and allows Fianna Fáil to parlay with potential supporters of a future administration that relies on Independents/small new parties.

Fianna Fáil appears to be operating to a strategy. Meanwhile, government ministers remain paralysed with self-pity from their bruising defeat. It's time for them to wake up to the new realities of the 32nd Dáil, as they're obviously outmanoeuvred.

Sinn Féin and parties of the Left continue to lecture from the side-lines; opting out of involvement in coalition; preserving their principles; marginalising any immediate effectiveness to implement aspects of election pledges in office.

The lesson of this election is no national consensus on who should govern or how. One-third of voters will resent all outcomes. We'll have another election in 2017. The €203bn national debt and its annual cost of €7bn are forgotten. Fine Gael will approach smaller parties and Independents to cobble together a token, short-term government to tide us over.

Dáil arithmetic dictates the only prospect of sustainable government is a grand coalition. But we now know that if there's ever to be a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael administration, it'll evolve only with Fianna Fáil as top dogs. Fine Gael must endure the misery of being junior partners - and the party senses it already.

Ergo, a new leader is essential to give it a chance in the next electoral arm wrestle. The national interest must play second fiddle to the unfolding 'House of Cards'.

Irish Independent

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