Stephen Collins: FF and FG embrace for fear of falling into abyss

Coveney and Varadkar emerge from water debacle with leadership aims enhanced

 

The war of nerves between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil about water is finally over and, whatever about the viability of the new water regime, it has been very revealing about the current state of morale in the two major parties.

The real surprise was that in spite of the Government’s precarious minority status, and uncertainty over an imminent change of leadership, Fine Gael managed to hold its nerve and force Fianna Fáil into an embarrassing climbdown.

The complex and ultimately pointless final week of the controversy showed both Fine Gael leadership contenders in a good light but raised serious questions about where Fianna Fáil is going.

Simon Coveney proved that as well as having the capacity to compromise, which he displayed during the tortuous negotiations that put the Government in place, he also has the resolve to hold firm on an important point of principle.

Leo Varadkar: gave an assured performance when standing in for Enda Kenny in the Dáil last week. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
Leo Varadkar: gave an assured performance when standing in for Enda Kenny in the Dáil last week. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Coveney stuck by the mantra that he would not agree to any regime on water that would open up the Irish taxpayer to big fines from the EU in the future. In the end he got a deal he believes is defensible on that score.

Whether it will actually stand up to EU scrutiny is open to question but there is no doubt that the line being followed by Fianna Fáil would certainly not have met the requirements of the EU water directive.

“The party of Lemass, which was once proud to stand up for things and would do the right things by the Irish people, now determines its policy on water solely out of its fear of Deputy Murphy and of Sinn Féin

Coveney’s leadership rival, Leo Varadkar, also came through the episode with his reputation enhanced. Standing in for the Taoiseach in the Dáil at the height of the controversy last week he gave an assured performance.

Skewered

He skewered Fianna Fáil by congratulating the leader of the anti-water charges campaign, Paul Murphy, for the role he played in reducing the main Opposition party to a supporting role in the campaign.

“The party of Lemass, which was once proud to stand up for things and would do the right things by the Irish people, now determines its policy on water solely out of its fear of Deputy Murphy and of Sinn Féin,” said Varadkar.

As well as making Fianna Fáil TDs squirm, Varadkar’s intervention helped to promote the notion of an evolving dividing line in Irish politics with Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the populist left on one side and Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Greens on the other.

While Micheál Martin has been a stern critic of Sinn Féin not all his TDs share his commitment and some have even been talking openly about a coalition with Sinn Féin in the not too distant future.

If his party had stuck by the position it had adopted at the Oireachtas committee on the future of water services last week, that speculation would have inevitably grown and with it the prospect of an early election.

Lifeline

In the event, Fianna Fáil was given a lifeline by the barrister employed to advise the committee and the party was able to scuttle to safety and adopt essentially the same position it had rejected only a week earlier.

In the end, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil stood together against Sinn Féin and the anti-water charges forces on one side and against Labour and the Greens on the other.

While the episode demonstrated how fragile the current Government arrangement is it also showed that when it came to the crunch, the two biggest parties in the Dáil clung on to each other for fear of falling into the abyss.

However, the marching up and down the hill by Fianna Fáil indicated a lack of coherence about how the confidence and supply arrangement should be operated to the party’s best advantage.

By temporarily throwing in its lot with Sinn Féin and the populist left, Fianna Fáil risked losing some of the support it has gained in the polls

Fianna Fáil is undoubtedly in a difficult position having to walk a tightrope between Government and Opposition but it cannot afford to show the same level of indecision on the major issues that will inevitably arise at regular intervals.

By temporarily throwing in its lot with Sinn Féin and the populist left, Fianna Fáil risked losing some of the support it has gained in the polls since last year’s election largely because it has been perceived to have acted responsibly.

The lurch to embrace the left was compounded by the threat to block the election of a new taoiseach when Fine Gael finds itself a new leader in the not too distant future.

That leadership change will inevitably have an impact on the dynamic between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil but the threat to vote against the election of a new taoiseach smacked of desperation.

While there is a general expectation that things will run relatively smoothly if Coveney is the next taoiseach, given the important role he played in putting the Government in place, he showed enough steel in the water row to convince his supporters in Fine Gael that he will be no pushover.

Varadkar was never an enthusiast for the minority Government option and has an obvious attraction for those in Fine Gael who would like the party to take a more robust approach to Fianna Fáil regardless of whether or not that precipitates an early election.

Minister for Housing Simon Coveney has been at the centre of the row between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over water charges. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
" Simon Coveney proved that as well as having the capacity to compromise, which he displayed during the tortuous negotiations that put the Government in place, he also has the resolve to hold firm on an important point of principle." File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Whichever of them comes out on top the events of the past few weeks will have given them a stronger hand.

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