Stephen Collins: New FG leader must keep Independents on side

Good chance of instability before new FG leader makes it to the Taoiseach’s office

Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney (left) and  Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar.  File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney (left) and Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Irish politics after Enda will be a real test of the fragile arrangements that have kept the minority Government in place for the past year.

There is a good chance of serious instability before the new Fine Gael leader even makes it to the Taoiseach’s office, never mind the long-term survival prospects for the 32nd Dáil.

The first thing the new Fine Gael leader will have to do is ensure that the Independents, who currently support the Government, stay in line and vote for him as taoiseach.

Independent Alliance Cabinet Minister Shane Ross, who described Enda Kenny as a “political corpse” after the general election, has been telling all and sundry in recent days that Enda is the glue holding the Government together.

What will happen when the glue is removed is an open question. The new leader will have to move quickly to re-establish the bonds that have held the Independents in place because without their support he will not be elected taoiseach.

The danger is that some of the Independents may see the Fine Gael leadership changeover as an opportunity to make new demands. It will only take one or two of them to push their luck too far and the whole structure will come crashing down. One recent potential flashpoint was the reluctance of Sean Canney to swop his position as Minister of State at the Office of Public Works with fellow Independent Kevin “Boxer” Moran, as agreed when the Government was formed – but that appears to have been ironed out.

It is still not clear whether Independent John Halligan will relinquish his ministerial position to a Fine Gael TD at some stage as originally envisaged, while Dr Michael Harty’s continued support cannot be taken for granted if he remains excluded from office.

Fianna Fáil also has a decisive say in what happens. Senior party figures have said publicly in recent days that as long as the new leader adheres to the confidence and supply arrangement – the document which deals with the mechanics of how a minority government arrangement will work – they will honour the deal for three budgets.

That deal requires the Independents to remain solid in support of the Government and if some of them start to wobble anything, even a general election, could happen.

Leadership contest

A lot will depend on who wins the Fine Gael leadership contest. Simon Coveney was the main architect of the government arrangement and victory for him would reassure the Independents and Fianna Fáil. Leo Varadkar was noticeably less enthusiastic during last year’s negotiations and if he comes out on top Fianna Fáil and the Independents will certainly be more nervous.

At this stage, a lot of people in Fine Gael are growing increasingly sceptical about the value of keeping the 32nd Dáil on life-support for much longer so the potential instability of a Varadkar victory may help rather than hinder his campaign. In the early stages of this Government there was a general view that if Fianna Fáil honoured its side of the bargain and kept Fine Gael in office for three years then Fine Gael would do the same if the boot is on the other foot after the next election. However, the experience of the past year is that a Government without a Dáil majority is simply not capable of functioning properly. It has survived so far because the momentum created by the Fine Gael-Labour government has delivered a relatively benign economic environment that does not require really tough decisions. That position will not last for much longer with pressure for public sector pay and pension increases likely to pose a big problem for the public finances in the autumn and the negative consequences of Brexit still to hit. Against that background, there is increasing pessimism not just about the survival of the 32nd Dáil but about the viability of any attempt to repeat the current arrangements in the next Dáil.

Long-term assessments of Fine Gael’s best interests as well as short-term calculations will influence the leadership election. While other candidates may emerge, nobody is in any doubt that it will boil down to a two-horse race between Coveney and Varadkar with supporters of both claiming their man is ahead.

The true state of play should become clear early in the contest, at least as far as the parliamentary party is concerned. Varadkar’s team is planning an early blitz by arranging for a long list of supporters to make a public commitment immediately the contest kicks off. The aim is to create enough momentum to convince the waverers that Varadkar is unstoppable and so generate a rush by TDs and Senators to be on the side of the winner with a majority of councillors and party members expected to follow that lead.

Regarded as lightweights

The identity of those prepared to commit to Varadkar at the start will be crucial. Some of those most strongly associated with his campaign over the past few months are regarded as lightweights by their colleagues. Varadkar will need to have a cross-section of respected party figures from both Dáil and Seanad in his corner and that is why there has been such speculation about the role Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe is likely to play.

Coveney was not campaigning openly up to very recently but he is expected to have the backing of a majority of Fine Gael Cabinet members. The declaration for him by the young Minister for Health, Simon Harris, was important as it demonstrated his support base goes beyond the party elders. He will need strong support from Munster TDs, Senators and MEPs to stay neck and neck with Varadkar in the parliamentary party. If he manages that he will be in with a great chance.

Coveney’s strength is his record as a minister in applying himself to the tasks he has been given and coming up with viable solutions. Varadkar’s strength is the image he conveys of being in tune with the values of the modern world and the positive impact that could have for Fine Gael in the future.

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