WITH the likelihood dawning on members of Fianna Fáil that an historic government coalition with political arch-rivals Fine Gael would dent the reputation of the Soldiers of Destiny more than that of their nemesis, how sure can leader Micheál Martin be that he will be able to convince the party grassroots to agree to such a deal?
It always seemed more likely that the biggest difficulty steering through a coalition government agreement would come from within the ranks of the third party involved, the Greens, who require approval of a minimum two-thirds of its membership to get any deal over the line – and this may yet prove to be the stumbling block – but there are many dissenters also within both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, moreso in the former.
The hardline Fine Gaelers will not be best-pleased either at the prospect of sharing power with Fianna Fáil, but they may be mollified by the fact that their party’s stock is in the ascendancy at the moment thanks to acting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s handling – so far – of the Covid-19 crisis, which is reflected in the latest political opinion polls. The dyed-in-the-wool FG hardcore may even smell blood here and see this partnership as a glorious opportunity to finally subsume its lifelong enemy across several generations of mostly playing second fiddle to them.
Trying to understand what’s in this coalition arrangement for Fianna Fáil is increasingly perplexing its membership. They could suck it up in the proverbial national interest, but the bottom line for all political parties is how things will affect them and the portents do not seem great for FF.
As leader of the party which marginally won the biggest number of seats in the 2020 general election, Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin felt it incumbent upon himself to do something about forming a government, but there was no way he was involving Sinn Féin, which had secured the largest number of first preference votes in the election.
He had also ruled out going into coalition with Fine Gael, but backtracked on this and has now gone a long way towards negotiating a coalition deal with them, much to the chagrin of many of his own party members who feel FF has more in common with republican party Sinn Féin, which may have been the case historically, but in terms of policies, FF and FG are like two parties joined at the hip.
Micheál Martin has a selfish reason for wanting to form a coalition government with Fine Gael and the Green Party, as this is his last opportunity of avoiding the prospect of being the first Fianna Fáil leader never to become Taoiseach. One would have to feel sorry for him in some respects because he brought a party he inherited in rag order back from the brink of oblivion after the deserved merciless bashing it took from the electorate in the 2011 general election and made good progress in regaining seats five years later.
However, the party lost a few marginal ones in the 2020 general election that has set it back to where it is now and this can only be explained as collateral damage for propping up an unpopular Fine Gael-led minority government for four years and making Fianna Fáil guilty by association of the deeds the electorate wanted to punish the former for in February.
For many Fianna Fáil grassroots members and some of its elected representatives, the confidence and supply agreement the party had with Fine Gael in the last government was bad enough, but actually going into coalition with them is a step too far. Historically, when they have gone into coalition with smaller parties, they have been in a much stronger position, with the smaller parties only there to make up a slight shortfall, and junior partners such as the Progressive Democrats, the Labour and Green parties all suffered politically in the aftermath of being in power with them.
This time, however, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are getting together as equal partners, and assuming the Green Party also comes on board, the role of Taoiseach will be shared during the lifetime of the government. Micheál Martin would be anxious to become Taoiseach first in case the coalition collapsed and his chance was blown.
He would be presiding over an economy in deep recession in the immediate aftermath (we hope) of the Covid-19 pandemic, requiring tough and probably unpopular decisions. Then, when much of the heavy lifting is done, we would probably see a more humble and politically-streetwise Leo Varadkar back as Taoiseach as things begin to improve ahead of the next general election, putting Fine Gael back in the ascendancy: Is this really what Fianna Fáil wants?
Of course, all of this will be rendered purely hypothetical if coalition government formation talks fail.