NO matter what kind of government we end up with – assuming we eventually get one – the hallmark of the negotiations involving the two main parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, has been self-preservation at all costs, putting their own interests ahead of the country. Both sides can put all the media spin they want on their actions throughout the lengthy process of trying to form some sort of stable government, but they continued to put their parties first as both try to put the brakes on their continually diminishing influence in Irish politics.
An example of this was the manner in which Acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny, in an unprecedented move last week, offered Fianna Fáil an equal role in a partnership government. However, the way it was done over the airwaves – and not face to face – can only have been designed to put the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin on the spot and embarrass him, in spite of Mr Kenny’s protestations that it was a ‘sincere offer’ in the national interest.
Predictably, Fianna Fáil rejected the offer on the basis that it was not what the people who voted for the party mandated them to do, but the rejection was partly also because of the insulting manner in which the partnership offer was made. The political manoeuvre regained some of the moral high ground for the Taoiseach, who had been visibly struggling to show leadership since the election, and consigned Micheál Martin, who had seemed the more statesmanlike of the two up to then, to somewhere between a rock and a hard place.
Fianna Fáil’s refusal of the offer came across as the decision it was – one made in the best interests of the party’s supporters rather than the national interest – however Fine Gael’s actions, no matter how they try to spin them, put their party first too as they tried to exploit a rare occasion where they have more seats than their arch-rivals for the second general election in a row. The new reality is very different from the old days though and the support of independents is key for both sides trying to form even a minority government.
In the 1977 general election – the last time we had a single-party majority government – Fianna Fáil had 51% of the first preference vote to Fine Gael’s 31%, making a total of 82% between them. In the past four decades, their influence has been waning gradually and is now down to less than 50% combined after the 2016 election.
An early general election would probably erode this further, which is why both of these parties are reluctant to have another one so soon after the one we had seven weeks ago. To avoid this, they need to ensure that a government capable of lasting a few years is formed and the public is getting impatient about the lack of progress in doing so over such a long period of time, especially when there are so many important issues that need attention
As Independent Alliance TD Shane Ross declared in exasperation at the weekend, the fact that the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaders had not met in person for talks up to then was ‘absurd and inexcusable.’ Both sides have been courting independent TDs for their support in government with Fine Gael doing the most detailed work on policy and Fianna Fáil mainly waiting in the wings to pick holes in their efforts, all the while harbouring the dream/illusion that they could lead a minority government.
However, no minority government will survive any worthwhile length, unless the main party that is not leading it agrees to support it for some defined period so as to give the country the political stability it needs to stave off external factors, such a lowering of our credit rating, that could impact on our still fragile economic recovery. This will be the ultimate dealmaker or breaker as Fianna Fáil supporting a minority Fine Gael-led government would be anathema to the party’s hardliners and its refusal to do so in the national interest would cast it as a bête noir with voters going into the general election that would inevitably ensue.
It would be very difficult to envisage Micheál Martin signing a written agreement – as Fine Gael negotiator Leo Varadkar is insisting upon – to support a Fine Gael-led minority government for a defined period of time, including budgets and motions of confidence. That could be a bridge too far for Fianna Fáil.
The best that could possibly be hoped for is some tacit form of support agreement between the two parties on a case-by-case basis, which would be difficult to maintain because of their ongoing deep distrust of one another. It would undermine stability and play right into the hands of their common nemesis, Sinn Féin, who would become the main opposition party and position them and a collection of other left-leaning TDs and groupings as a future alternative government.
The bottom line is that the good of the country needs to be put centre-stage in all negotiations if politicians want to win back any modicum of public trust.