Saturday 21 September 2019

Willie Kealy: 'Election would give a fresh mandate and new vigour to victor'

Leo Varadkar has a big decision to make - and many reasons to opt for an election early next year, writes Willie Kealy

TRUE TODAY: But let’s see what tomorrow brings for Varadkar. Photo: Gerry Mooney
TRUE TODAY: But let’s see what tomorrow brings for Varadkar. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Willie Kealy

We keep hearing that nobody wants an election right now. And while there are many good reasons not to have an election in the immediate future - and I have spelled out some of them in these pages in recent weeks - we should not take anything for granted.

For example, Leo Varadkar saying: "I am not planning on calling an election," is the kind of ambiguous statement that could be true today, but totally without meaning tomorrow or next week.

Probably the only ones who could truly say with hand on heart they do not want an election anytime soon are the members of the Independent Alliance who enjoy the fruits of government at present. This is especially so with the Taoiseach feeling himself drawn to a different type of government after the next election, one in which he feels there would be a stronger Fine Gael representation, backed by Labour, the Green Party, maybe the Social Democrats and an Independent or two, (not a whole alliance).

For some time now, Mr Varadkar has been showing the kind of impatience that indicates he would love to get out there and win his own mandate, while in the process freeing himself from indebtedness to Fianna Fail. It started in August when he tried to bounce Micheal Martin into a new confidence and supply agreement with a private letter that he then made public. If there was going to be a new confidence and supply agreement they should get on with it now, he effectively said.

At the time this looked like an attempt to portray Mr Martin as unreasonable and giving the Taoiseach no choice but to go to the country. But Mr Martin didn't panic. He reminded the Taoiseach that the existing agreement, which doesn't run out till mid December, could not be returned to till after the Budget. And so it was that the two parties only came together last week, but again Mr Varadkar is doing his best to rush the leader of the Opposition. Micheal Martin is following the agreed procedures, insisting on a review of what has been achieved to date before exploring any further agreement. The Taoiseach characterises this as "stalling".

Mr Martin seemed to try to take the steam out of the situation by offering continued backing of the Government until March to allow Brexit to be finalised, lending credence to the suggestion that he does not want a winter election, which, he said, would be reckless in the middle of all this Brexit volatility. This, too, was rejected by the Taoiseach who made what seemed like an extraordinary claim, that this would allow British hard-line Brexiteers to bring down the Irish Government.

Instead he suggested that he and Mr Martin could simply agree that there would be no election until the summer of 2020. That seemed to ignore the fact that the talks aimed at reaching agreement (or not) on another confidence and supply pact are already under way. Anyway, Mr Martin wasn't biting.

So, with all that in mind, who wants a general election? Other than Shane Ross and his Alliance colleagues, Mr Martin would seem to be the only one who would prefer to hang on for a while longer. And just because he is not allowing himself to be bounced into a quick agreement to prolong the life of this Government, it should not be assumed he does not want a deal in the end. Right now, as things stand in the polls, it would probably suit Fianna Fail for things to carry on as they are for a little longer in the hope that prospects will improve.

But the one who really has to make the big decision is the Taoiseach himself. If you listened to him on the night of the presidential election count, you would swear he had already gone into election mode. "We have done a lot for middle Ireland. There's full employment, increases in the minimum wage, new benefits for the self-employed, affordable childcare, cuts in income tax and USC. We did that with 25pc of the vote and a minority Government. Imagine what we could do with a majority."

Now we have to bear in mind that what sparked this statement was his apparent annoyance that Peter Casey had effectively stolen his lines about the people of middle Ireland who get up in the morning to go to work. And we also have to remember this was the same occasion on which he said he was not planning on calling an election, something he repeated yesterday.

At the end of the day we have to ask ourselves, would we, the people, be better off or worse off if there was an election? Bear in mind that on one level we are not doing too badly under this regime, but on another level, they have proved hopelessly inadequate in trying to deal with some of the major issues, like the health service, the homeless crisis, the housing crisis, and broadband. And we also have to consider whether or not it would be a serious mistake to have an election in the middle of the Brexit negotiations.

The idea that only Simon Coveney can negotiate Brexit is beginning to wear thin, and an election mid talks might even be a help in avoiding pressure from our European allies to give ground on taxation reform in return for continued support on the border issue. But it doesn't have to be an immediate election. If there are genuine concerns over Brexit, the date could be set for the first months of the new year when a deal has been done with the UK or it has become clear it is not going to happen.

If there was an election, we would have a new coalition government, with or without the need for a new confidence and supply agreement. It could be Fianna Fail in the driving seat this time, and if it was, there can be little doubt that Mr Martin has all the ability and experience to make a good Taoiseach and would relish the chance to make solving the big problems his legacy. On the other hand, Leo Varadkar might achieve his vision of a majority government, and feel emboldened to take on some of the major challenges with a vigour that has been absent until now.

Whichever, there is a lot to be said for clearing the air and making what would effectively be a new start with a fresh mandate for the victor.

Sunday Independent

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