Sticking One’s Neck Out
Deaglán de Bréadún
Herewith a piece from your humble scribe which appeared in the Op-Ed page of today’s print edition. Civil and constructive comments most welcome – but you don’t have to agree!
THE HOLLYWOOD mogul Sam Goldwyn, who was famously prone to malapropisms, once said: “Predictions are very hard to make, especially about the future.” With a new Dáil term about to start on Wednesday, we know that a general election is to be declared, but we don’t know exactly when: current thinking is either March 11th or 25th with the latter seen as the most likely.
There is a belief the Taoiseach may give an indication on timing when the Dáil resumes, while emphasising that this will be subject to the smooth and successful passage of the Finance Bill through the Dáil and Seanad.
That legislation enacting the Budget will probably be brought before the Dáil on January 20th. It normally takes at least six weeks but it might be done in five this time, barring unforeseen complications.
If the Government decided to hold a referendum to abolish the Seanad, that could push the date of the election forward to April or even May, but such a complex undertaking seems an unlikely prospect, although Brian Cowen has a penchant for springing occasional surprises.
Talk of a possible election in late March has inevitably given rise to speculation that the annual pilgrimage by the Taoiseach to the White House will take place before polling day. Although the invitation from the US administration is normally not issued until the end of February, it seems safe to assume that Brian Cowen will be presenting the bowl of shamrock to Barack Obama on St Patrick’s Day. There is a theory that in appearing alongside Obama, the Taoiseach will secure a bounce of 1 or 2 per cent in the polls. Cowen’s critics, however, say the contrast between the two men will be to his disadvantage.
Television debates between the leaders are regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a key feature of any general election. Before the summer of last year, RTÉ wrote to the parties proposing three debates among the leaders: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour at the start of the campaign; Labour, Greens and Sinn Féin in the middle; and Fianna Fáil versus Fine Gael just prior to polling day.
Unsurprisingly, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael both wished to retain the previous arrangement, with their head-to-head the main event. Naturally, Labour wanted to be in at the end as well as the beginning. The Greens and Sinn Féin favoured all-party debates. There the matter rested but it has now surfaced again. Given the party ratings in the polls, it will be hard to exclude Labour from the top table and it can be expected that Sinn Féin and the Greens will be very publicly miffed if they are consigned to a lower level.
TV3 is expected to look for a slice of the action and, since the main party leaders all have a knowledge of Irish, having one of the debates on TG4 is a possibility.
There will be a lot of media politics, not to mention the conventional variety, surrounding this issue and the negotiations are going to be delicate in the extreme.
Whatever the final arrangements, the viewing audience will be very substantial since close to a million people watched the Bertie Ahern-Enda Kenny duel in 2007.
Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom remains that Fine Gael and Labour will form the next government. The notion of a Fianna Fáil-Labour tie-up has been ruled out by Eamon Gilmore who has also poured ice-cold water on the concept of a coalition deal involving Sinn Féin.
Touring the Wicklow and Wexford constituencies this week, the Labour leader was talking up his party’s prospects of being the largest party in the next Dáil.
At present, Fianna Fáil has 70 seats, Fine Gael has 51 and Labour 20. Although we are entering new territory where the public mood is volatile, Labour has a very steep hill to climb. Immediately after a press conference this week where Gilmore again proclaimed his vaulting ambition, a senior party colleague confessed privately that 35 seats was a more likely outcomet. That would still be an extremely impressive result, making it even less likely that anybody could form a government without Labour support and significant amounts of Labour policy, not to mention faces at the cabinet table. Let us suppose that Fine Gael have 65 seats and Labour 40, that would probably mean a divvy-up of nine ministries for the larger party and six for Gilmore’s people.
A majority government could also be formed with, say, 45 Fianna Fáil and 40 Labour. In that arrangement, Labour would be entitled to seven cabinet posts and half the junior ministries. Hardly worth the shellacking that would follow: remember when Dick Spring went in with Albert Reynolds?
The political rebirth and second coming of Michael Noonan means he will have a claim on the finance portfolio in any FG-Labour administration. Labour has three obvious contenders in Joan Burton, Ruairí Quinn and Pat Rabbitte – but will the party want the job in the current climate of cutbacks and retrenchment?
And what of Fianna Fáil? Total wipeout is the stuff of Fine Gael and Labour dreams but a drop of about one-third in its total of Dáil seats seems virtually certain. In that eventuality we may be writing the obituary of the Taoiseach’s political career, although, as Sam Goldwyn said in a different context: “I don’t think anybody should write his autobiography until after he’s dead.”