Tuesday 18 December 2018

Independents need to forget parish pump and prove they can play with the big boys

'With a rainbow coalition looking unlikely and a grand coalition definitely out, the most likely outcome is still a FG-Independent minority government'
'With a rainbow coalition looking unlikely and a grand coalition definitely out, the most likely outcome is still a FG-Independent minority government'

Shane Coleman

It's 40 days (and nights) today since the General Election - that seems appropriate, given that the number 40 is associated with judgment and testing in the Bible.

But once the - inevitably inconclusive - vote for Taoiseach takes place this afternoon, then it's time to start bringing the new Dáil out of the political desert and end this period of 'trial'. In non-biblical terms, it's time to get serious about forming a government.

There have been hundreds of thunderous letters written to newspapers in the past month from angry readers demanding Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil "grow up and stop behaving like children" and do a deal "in the national interest". Tens of thousands of column inches too along the same lines (with even sports writers getting in on the "something must be done" act).

But it's simplistic to believe that anything could have happened before now. The people chose not to give any party more than 50 seats. The idea that political impasse could be quickly resolved is fanciful. Nor is it even certain that it would have been desirable -'marry in haste, repent at leisure' etc.

Given it was only six seats shy of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil had every right to explore putting a government together. However, those efforts should come to an end today. Assuming Enda Kenny gets the highest number of votes for Taoiseach, Micheál Martin will have to accept that, despite Fianna Fáil doing far better than anybody expected, Fine Gael will have pipped his party on three occasions: the General Election and the two votes on Taoiseach.

That makes it solely Enda Kenny's prerogative to form a government - in turn allowing for the big two to begin discussing how best to go about doing that.

Much of the analysis so far has centred on how Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil is the only show in town. But that's not necessarily the case. A Fine Gael-led minority government including 15 Independents, the Social Democrats, the Greens and Labour would have 77 seats. Given the splintered opposition strength, that's as close to a majority as nearly makes no difference and wouldn't require a 'Tallaght Strategy, Mark II' with Fianna Fáil.

Labour and the Social Democrats have both ruled out coalition. But their reasons for doing so are less than compelling. There is a strong case for arguing that Labour would be far better off in government (with two seats at Cabinet), shaping policy on issues like the Eighth Amendment, than outmuscled in opposition by Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the AAA-PBP.

The same holds for the Soc Dems, who were actually open to the idea of coalition before and during the election campaign. Labour's instinctive opposition to the possibility is understandable given their election trauma, the Soc Dems have no such excuse. What actually is their game?

Though the Greens have pulled out of the talks, that's because they wanted to be part of a genuine rainbow coalition. If Labour and the Social Democrats were involved, they'd be back in a shot, ready to man the pumps at a new Department of Climate Change. Such a government could easily last a full term if the economic conditions stayed favourable.

So, potentially, could a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil grand coalition. But, like the previous option, it's not going to happen. Fianna Fáil fought the election saying it wouldn't coalesce with Fine Gael - and, despite the righteous indignation of the letters to the editor, that should count for something. And, although some key members of the parliamentary party are open to the idea, the leadership probably couldn't get such a deal past its membership.

Finally, a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition may actually not be in the "national interest" at all. The trend of alternating Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael-led governments has, on balance, served the country well over the decades; leaving the opposition benches - and the path to forming the next government - open to the hard left is a real concern; and there's no guarantee the two parties would work well in coalition together.

With a rainbow coalition looking unlikely and a grand coalition definitely out, it still looks like a Fine Gael-Independent government, with a range of deals involving certainly Fianna Fáil, and perhaps Labour, the Soc Dems and the Greens, from the opposition benches on certain votes.

It's not ideal and it will require the Dáil/committee system being utilised like never before (which would be no bad thing). But it will also need Independents to step up to the plate and show they're ready to embrace a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape a national programme for government, as opposed to working the parish pump. The signals have been decidedly mixed on this so far.

Finally, it will need a maturity from both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Mr Kenny needs to get over his all-too-obvious tribal antipathy towards Fianna Fáil, and Mr Martin needs to stop playing politics on Irish Water - scrapping the company isn't a runner.

If that can happen - and it can - we'll have a government by the end of this month. Despite the angst, the country hasn't been damaged by our Lent governmental fast. But it can't go on indefinitely - the Brexit referendum, industrial relations issues and investor nervousness must be addressed.

We need a government. But people shouldn't get too stressed. Politics being the art of the possible, we'll get a government. It's just going to take a few more weeks, starting properly from today.

Shane Coleman presents the 'Sunday Show' on newstalk.com at 10am

Irish Independent

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