Sunday 8 December 2019

Lowry can't be ruled out of a 'government by Lotto'

Michael Lowry
Michael Lowry
John Downing

John Downing

Go on standby Marty Whelan. We may soon need your skills and experience in the important matter of picking a government. We need somebody with a long and impeccable track record.

Assuming a General Election on Friday, February 26, it may be too much of a stretch to see this important work featuring on the Lotto show for that Saturday night. In extremis, it might run to the following Saturday.

But we could guess a preference for a special draw sometime early in the ensuing week, once marathon and contentious election counts and re-counts were concluded. Then we would have a clearer picture of the final election result and all the right colour-coded Lotto balls could be in place.

Already, we can hear two questions arising: Firstly, what the hell are you talking about? Secondly, are you just hamming things up?

Answer one is stay with me for a few minutes, all will be revealed. Answer two is, yes, we are briefly in mocking mode, but we are also in the many-a-true-word-in-jest mode.

Let's start with Enda Kenny telling us yesterday that Fine Gael is not talking potential coalition support with once-and-future Tipperary poll-topper, Michael Lowry, who was once of Mr Kenny's self-same party.

We can believe the Taoiseach's assertion of no contact for one simple reason - all such business is done at arm's length. It is only when the Dáil arithmetic is clear that full-on contact happens and is ultimately made public. But we can depend that Mr Lowry, and many Independents you may never previously have heard about, could yet be kingpins in the next government.

Clearly, for the Taoiseach to acknowledge that any such contact was taking place now would make him guilty of the lethal sin of political presumption. Secondly, the contact via a person who knows a person, prefaced with a heavy dose of "only supposin'" keeps the Taoiseach fit to pass any lie-detector test on this topic at any time and in any place.

But there is a simple reason for dragging the name of Marty Whelan into all this. It is the reality that the final make-up of the next Government could be more than a lottery - in fact, it might even be more lucky bag than lottery.

Some interesting things happened this past weekend in Irish politics. Fine Gael's key players made their way through the ard fheis by keeping the ball low with the general public, while also trying to nerve their own troops' arms for the upcoming fray.

They were also nice to, and solicitous toward, Labour, notably acknowledging the party's steadfast role in trying to get the economy right since taking office in March 2011. Several speakers stressed the good working partnership between their current superhero, Michael Noonan, and Labour's Brendan Howlin, in managing the nation's straitened finances.

At Citywest in Dublin, Fine Gael also delivered a few well-modulated kicks at its old rivals - trying to lay the blame for economic carnage since autumn 2008 at Fianna Fáil's door. But even here the 'rhetoricometer' was not doing handstands.

Meanwhile, Labour were back via a big Sunday newspaper interview by Brendan Howlin to say beware rampant Fine Gael giving all to their "posh pals". We heard this before Christmas from Labour leader, Joan Burton, who warned of a too-powerful Fine Gael in the next Dáil being unable to resist the "siren calls" of big business and well-paid elites.

We will hear more and more from Labour on this through the campaign. It is a message geared at middle-ranking and lower-paid public service workers, the people whose votes Labour traditionally scrapped over for decades.

But this group was also the target for the big message to emerge from Mr Kenny's keynote address on Saturday night. He promised more teachers, more gardaí and more nurses. The gambit reminded us of Fine Gael's pre-emptive pledges on low pay, promises to take more low earners out of the USC net, and a pledge of taxpayer-funded top-ups to the minimum wage.

In sum, it set clear limits to just how nice Fine Gael can ever be to Labour in this first-up-best-dressed contest.

Mr Noonan got a standing ovation just before lunchtime on Saturday, again emphasising his god-like status for the party faithful. Minutes later, he was on RTÉ radio insisting very strongly that the party was going into the General Election defending 68 Dáil seats. Talk of 80-plus TDs in the next Dáil was not tenable.

"So, you can take that off the table," the Limerick veteran insisted.

It is wise for Mr Noonan to speak thus. It costs nothing politically to let that overall majority dream live inside the privacy of one's head and be murmured quietly in pubs beneath a portrait of Michael Collins.

But more immediately and realistically, there is an anxiety within Fine Gael that they are odds on to be the biggest party after the election, but they could still struggle to pull the magic 80-plus TDs together.

The big imponderable, until well into the upcoming campaign, is the fate of Labour.

Have three-year-long predictions of Labour's demise been exaggerated? Can they repeat their frequent political Houdini act and come back in double figures to be once more government players? Odds are against it right now - but it cannot be ruled out.

Meanwhile, if there are not contacts with potential Independent allies, then the government parties are rank political incompetents. There is every chance that Independent TDs will be needed. Whether they end up doing a semi-detached deal or they take a Cabinet seat or seats remains to be seen. Critics can rail at controversies surrounding Michael Lowry - but the Tipperary voters and, indeed, Fianna Fáil, and even the Green Party, endorsed him.

But let's finish, as we started, with Marty Whelan. The Lotto lights come up and Marty draws a yellow ball announcing: "Michael Lowry."

Then Marty draws a blue ball and intones "Minister for Agriculture". The draw continues.

You see, the Lotto might be the best way to pick those ministers.

Irish Independent

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