Irish government formation… are we there yet, are we there yet? No, not yet.

I wrote this column for Monday’s Broadsheet.ie it again looks at where we are on electing a new government and concludes that it is still the best part of a month away, despite the hype and spin. I decided to run a two day twitter poll to establish what people there fely was going to happen (as opposed to what they personally hoped to see happen). I will post the results on this page shortly. 

Government_Buildings,_Merriot_Street,_Dublin

According to the headline in last Friday’s Irish Times: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are close to agreeing a coalition framework document.

I am sure they are. Comments from the two party leaders confirms this. The Taoiseach has said the document should be ready within a week or two. Mr Martin said it could act as a “catalyst” for other parties to join such a government.

Yes, the parties have made some progress, but there is still a long way to go before there will be a government in place. The optimism exuding from Fianna Fáil sources last week that a new government could in place before the end of April with Martin as Taoiseach, was… to put it at its mildest… a bit premature.

Let’s look at the facts. Together Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have 72 Dáil seats. If everyone votes, 80 is a bare majority. Realpolitik – something Micheál Martin was talking about a few weeks back – dictates that any government hoping to last a full term have a majority that is northwards of 80, preferably in the mid 80s. That or a confidence and supply agreement with another big party, but let’s not go back there, just yet.

To get to 80 or above the two parties need the Greens, or the Labour Party, or the Labour Party and Social Democrats, or the Labour party and labour aligned independents, or some permutation or combination of the above to be part of the deal. There are also several independents in play, including (though not limited) to those who backed both Varadkar and Martin on the February vote for Taoiseach.

To put it crudely, agreeing the joint Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition framework document is the equivalent of plucking the low hanging fruit. There is a lot more reaching, stretching, climbing and grappling to be done to get the rest. And there is no guarantee that the efforts will pay off.

It is 57 days since we voted in the general election and 45 days since the 33rd   Dáil attempted to elect a new Taoiseach and put a government in place.

Under normal conditions, and we are clearly not in normal conditions now, when the Dáil is serially deadlocked and incapable of selecting a Taoiseach, the default option, one could even call it a backstop, is another election.

The possibility of another election contributes to the government formation process by sets an endpoint. The prospect of a continuing deadlock leading to an election can help concentrate the minds of the parties and individual TDs.

So, what happens in a situation where there cannot be an election and the Dáil cannot agree a new Taoiseach?

Well… nothing happens. The status quo remains the status quo and the outgoing government remains in place.

That’s what we have now. It is also what we will have for the foreseeable future. We are in a situation where that backstop… that impetus… that threat of a second election is not imminent. Coronavirus means it is highly unlikely there could be an election any time before September or October, and even that timeline may be a tad optimistic.

To his credit, Martin and his supporters are saying in public what they are saying in private. It is not absolutely everything they are saying in private, but most of it is.

Martin may sincerely believe that a government with 85 (or more) seats, comprising Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael and another main party/parties (along the lines mentioned above) and friendly independents can be speedily put in place. From what I hear the framework document is drafted in such a way as to give the Greens/Labour/Social Democrats most of what the FF/FG negotiating teams think they might want and need.

So committed is Martin and his inner circle to this end that they are ready to bet all their futures on it. Indeed, in the minds of many in Fianna Fáil (and that includes yours truly) they are ready to gamble the future viability of Fianna Fáil as a significant political force on it.

The always ultra-cautious, risk averse, Martin is set to go “all-in” in a game where he holds few of the cards and the other player has a number of hands from which to choose.

But Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael close to agreeing a coalition framework document was not the only political headline appearing in the Irish Times last week. On Friday, the headline “Second general election is now a real possibility” appeared above a column by venerable political commentator Stephen Collins. Collins said the unwillingness of the Greens, Social Democrats or Labour to join with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael made the prospect of a second election real possibility.

He was not the only one. The Irish Independent’s Kevin Doyle did the same on Saturday, though he put it stronger. He didn’t describe it as a possibility, he hailed it as a necessity saying that the Ireland of today and tomorrow is “a very different place” from the one that voted two months ago.

He is right on this last point. The manifesto promises made last February anticipated a very difficult world and a much stronger economy.

While it is easy to dismiss this talk of second elections as speculation, perhaps even brinksmanship – I am willing to wager that it is speculation based on more than a few informed discussions, discussions with sources not far removed from the Fine Gael leadership.

So, while the option Martin talks about publicly is the same one he works on privately, that is not the case for Fine Gael. This is not to say another election is Fine Gael’s preferred option, but it would be foolhardy not to recognise that the possibility exists.

Fine Gael has choices. It has options. It has these not because it has been busy out manoeuvring Fianna Fáil, but because Martin and his lieutenants have managed to somehow under manoeuvre themselves.

Many inside his party firmly believe his decision to rule out any meaningful exploration of the national unity government option was a mistake. I am one of them and, as Éamon Ó Cuív tweeted yesterday, we are many.

Rather than exploring the unity government idea and teasing out its duration or agenda and then allowing other parties to decide whether it was for them or not, Martin moved to shut down debate inside or outside his party.

He chose to steer his party into a position where it is committed to one route only. His supporters may hail it as noble and politically courageous, the act of a principled leader. They be right, but it is not the action of a masterful strategist.

Micheál Martin the political leader, the man who would be Taoiseach, may see his suggested coalition as the one way forward, but there is another Martin, Martin the historian, who might see some feint echoes of 1948 in today’s attempts to pull all parties, bar one, together into coalition to keep that one party out. Today it is Sinn Féin. In 1948 it was Fianna Fáil.

I have not changed my views on Sinn Féin, no more than Micheál Martin has. My problems with Sinn Féin appears as point one in the seven principles for government formation I drafted in early February and set out here five weeks ago.

I want a government without Sinn Féin, but I also want to be able to go to the pub tonight or to grab a bus into city centre tomorrow to meet friends. There are times we do not get our first wish, or even our second.

I am not filled with glee at the prospect of Sinn Féin entering government, but I grasp that these are unique times. At this moment and for the next year or so, or until there is a viable and widely available Coronavirus vaccine, we need all the talents and political skills that are ready and willing to serve together in a unity government, serving in one. No bans, vetos or exclusions. We have enough of those to cope with right now.

One thought on “Irish government formation… are we there yet, are we there yet? No, not yet.

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