Written early on Monday June 15th, this Broadsheet.ie column appeared online just a few hours before the FG/Green/FF Programme for Government landed – a document which Fianna Fáil TDs did not get until a two or three hours before they met to explore and agree its 140 pages of aspirations.
Here I explain why I resolutely oppose the PfG and reject its false T-I-N-A mantra… there are alternatives, several of them. What is missing is the political will and focus. Indeed the roadblock on which this PfG push depends may be lifted entirely if next week’s court action by a group of Senators succeeds and the Seanad is permitted to convene without the 11 Taoiseach’s nominees.
Depending on how you look at it, when it arrives the Fine Gael/Green/Fianna Fáil Programme for Government (PfG) will arrive either 15 hours, 3 days, 9 days or 3 weeks later than expected.
This is assuming it is published sometime this morning and is not once again deferred, delayed, postponed or otherwise held up by a talks process that appears to have been designed as a slow punishment for both those who work within it and those misfortunates who must write about it.
Before I tell you why I disapprove of both the deal and the government formation it hopes to underpin, let me start out by saying something (vaguely) positive.
It is to the immense personal credit of everyone in the three plenary negotiating teams that this document made it to paper. As a piece of political communications it is not bad. Each of the teams can see their own handiwork within its pages and can each say: “I put that section there”. Though whether many of them will still want to admit this in a few years’ time, is debatable.
The primary clue to the problems lurking beneath the surface of this deal is the length of time it has taken to agree it. As any experienced political operative could attest, negotiating a coalition arrangement between three diverse parties takes time.
But this deal has taken a lot of time, even allowing for the limitations of social distancing and other restrictions. Supporters of the deal say it was vital they take the time to iron out the problems and difficulties now.
Mr Varadkar stressed this point in a recent Fine Gael parliamentary party Zoom call, saying that the 2011Fine Gael/Labour coalition PfG talks showed how issues left unresolved just fester and cause problems later.
But did we really need to take this much longer? The 2011 government barely took 12 days to put together (from Polling day to election of Taoiseach). We are now at Day 128… and counting.
If this is how long they need to address issues when working outside of the pressures of government, how much longer is it going to take them to tackle a real political crisis while in government? A government is not judged on how it delivers planned responses to planned situations but on how it responds to the unexpected ones.
These are the unpredicted and unforeseeable “events, dear boy” of which former UK PM Harold MacMillan famously spoke (though no one can point to where he actually said it). The political pitfalls that try the cohesion and resilience of a government.
The persistently and consistently sluggish pace of the PfG talks, including the many missed deadlines, right up to this morning should give serious cause for concern about the parties’ capacities to respond speedily to a political crisis in government.
Firm supporters of the PfG, and I hear there are such exotic creatures outside of the negotiating teams and the ranks of ministers-in-waiting, boast that this is one of the most comprehensive coalition deals ever formulated. Looking at its 100 plus pages, it is hard to say they are wrong. But we do not measure PfGs in terms heft and girth alone.
Is this a cohesive package? It contains elements that are identifiably from the parties but how do they meld together? How can you reasonably fit Fianna Fail’s demand for greater spending on housing and health within the austerity constraints set out by Leo Varadkar?
The Fine Gael triumvirate of Varadkar Coveney and Donohue are adamant the PfG is primarily framed by Fine Gael values of fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction. But this is the very approach which voters rejected last February. Just where in the PfG is this inconvenient truth acknowledged?
On the other hand, how can you justify banning further off shore gas exploration, banning the importation of fracked gas and curtailing the planned motorway building programme at precisely the moment when the economy needs big public infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy.
How does banning gas and oil exploration and forcing us to import them instead reduce the amount we use? I totally understand why the Greens want and need this. I can even see why Éamon Ryan fears the chances of getting the 66% backing needed without these measures, but I cannot see how it makes economic sense.
The Programme for Government is replete with other policy paradoxes, from live exports, to ending the strategic housing development fast track system in 18 months or to having 2030 target dates on a range of issues.
No matter how much love, passion, conviction or heartache the negotiators put into this deal it cannot at one and the same time represent core Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green values without them being so simplified, generalised and abridged to be rendered meaningless.
My greatest criticism of the PfG however, has less to do with its contents – some of which, despite their contradictions, have merit – and has everything to do with the basic approach underpinning it.
As I have repeatedly stated here the two main parties in this deal have never faced up to what happened when voters went to the polls on February 8th.
One can see why Fine Gael hasn’t, or at least hasn’t not done so publicly. That would require them acknowledging that a large swathe of the people who voted for them in 2011 have rejected them since. Not just once, but twice. Fine Gael has watched its first preference vote drop from 800,00 (36%) in 2011 to 545,000 (25.5%) in 2016 and down further 456,000 (21%).
Despite a leadership change that was supposed to restore its fortunes, its vote has collapsed to just over half of what it was. Yet, despite this decline, Fine Gael clenches firmly on the levers of power, particularly the ones in the Department of Finance – an issue I explored here at the end of April.
You’d almost have to admire their chutzpah. They lose votes and yet cling on. They are allowed do it because the party that said it would turf them out has done a 180o turn and is now actively asking its own members to back a deal that will keep Fine Gael in office for a historic third term.
This is because the current Fianna Fáil leadership has also not yet processed what happened last February. It is a drum I have been banging repeatedly since early March, so I won’t dwell on it here today.
The bottom line is that there are three absolute truths in Fianna Fáil today. They highlight how misguided the current strategy is, but also that Fianna Fáil had options, options that gave it leverage – and may yet do that.
The three truths are:
Truth 1. Fianna Fáil TDs do not want a second election. To be fair, this could be said of almost every T.D. While Fine Gael may talk tough about a second election, their TDs know their current poll leads are soft. As a pack, Sinn Féin TDs are less worried, but individual T.D.s, especially first timers are in no particular rush to put their nice new gigs in jeopardy.
Truth 2. Almost no government can be formed without FF involvement. This is where Fianna Fáil’s leverage resides. The only alternative government formation to one involving Fianna Fáil is one with both FG and SF. While this may happen one day, it isn’t happening now. It would be politically unsellable to its own members. Whether it is Unity – all parties, National – the three main parties, or some minority government with a C&S arrangement, there are more scenarios that put Fianna Fáil in office than outside of it.
So, why has Micheál Martin rejected all talk of other options and spurned the leverage they bring? I could speculate, but I won’t. Besides, what’s the point? Martin has made his decision. He has taken his Fianna Fáil party to this point and must deal with what happens next. He could pull it off. Equally, his strategy could yet be derailed by membership votes in his own party members and the Green party. We will know in under two weeks.
….. oh, what about the third truth? It is the most painful and difficult one of all. It is the one that TDs and senators dare not say out loud.
Truth 3. Micheál Martin has fought his last election as party leader. Win, lose or draw, we will not see Micheál Martin lead Fianna Fáil into another election. Whether the next election is in 3 months, 2 years or 4.5 years and no matter what happens in next week’s members ballots, Martin’s last race as leader has been run.