Noel Whelan: FG may have to bite bullet on Micheál Martin

If negotiations are to succeed then Fine Gael can not rule out Mícheál Martin becoming Taoiseach first

With Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael unwilling to enter a coalition there is no obvious way to form a government for the 32nd Dáil, so what happens next? Fiach Kelly reports.

 

The ritual outcome of the election played out on the floor of the Dáil yesterday in defeat for Enda Kenny and all other nominees for the position of taoiseach. Now after all the noise and nonsense our political leaders can get down to dealing realistically with the results of the election.

What we have had for the last 10 days is a charade in which all sides of the new Dáil were happy to participate. The Independents and others got some attention and the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil bought themselves some time.

The moment has now come, however, for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to engage meaningfully with the reality of the Dáil numbers by engaging meaningfully with each other.

There are three pillars to any negotiations between these two parties for government formation.

The first is policy. Agreeing a combined programme for government will not be easy but it is doable. The two parties agree on the broad macro economic terms. The orientation of the next few budgets will be tilted more towards expenditure on public services over tax cuts than Fine Gael would have done.

The two parties differ on the structure of the health services. They differ on water charges and the structure of Irish Water. Neither of these differences is insurmountable.

The two parties can and should agree a plan to urgently tackle the housing, and homelessness crisis. They can and should write a four- or five-year programme to address the demographic shifts that will create a dramatic rise in demand for child care and elder care.

Creative

The two parties together have the capacity to be creative in devising new, and hopefully more transparent, ways in which cabinet and parliament should operate. By combining their experience of government these two parties may finally be able to overcome the implementation deficit disorder that has dogged our executive branch in recent decades.

The second pillar of negotiations concerns questions of personnel and positions. The issue of whether Kenny’s continued leadership of Fine Gael assists or hinders the prospects of the two parties being in government is a relevant personnel question.

When someone loses power it becomes obvious – one can literally see it drain away.

Kenny is still in office, as caretaker for now, but he has lost power. Fine Gael lost the campaign and they lost many seats. These losses were directly attributable to Kenny, to his strategic decisions, his choice of personnel to run the campaign and his gaffes.

New leader

All in Fine Gael know they will have a new leader for the next election; many of them say it will be required sooner than that. Some even see it as necessary within days or weeks. Even those of the latter view, however, speak of not wanting to see Kenny humiliated. This is why they were so angered by Shane Ross’s inelegant description of Kenny’s political deterioration in his column last weekend. Those in charge in Fianna Fáil, on the other hand, are anxious to emphasise that whether Kenny leads Fine Gael is a matter for Fine Gael and not for them.

A key issue will be whether any coalition between them can truly be a coalition of equals. Fine Gael has six TDs more than Fianna Fáil but most of those in a position to shape Fine Gael’s approach to negotiation accept that there will have to be an equal share of cabinet positions. Any fine-tuning of how that might be done can be dealt with by an agreed allocation of the chief whip’s position, and nominees as attorney general, super-junior or junior ministers.

There is now also an acceptance by senior politicians in Fine Gael that the taoiseach’s office will have to be rotated. If negotiations between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are to have any real prospect of success then Fine Gael may have to go further and not rule out a scenario where Mícheál Martin would become taoiseach first.

The most difficult pillar in negotiations between these two parties however relates to issues that are intangible and intertwined: these are questions of culture, tribe and trust. At a senior level many of the politicians of these two parties don’t like each other. At grass root level the mutual antagonism and tribal enmity is intense.

The visceral opposition to entering coalition with Fine Gael is particularly acute in much of the Fianna Fáil organisation, and has been recharged in many quarters because of the party’s Lazarus-like recovery since 2011.

It is on this last set of factors that the formation of a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael government are most likely to falter. It is these issues that could topple the country into a second election.

It would be a great shame if the national interest were to be undermined by party or tribal considerations. Avoiding such a scenario will require political maturity, and strong leadership.

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