Fine Gael and Independents building castles in the air
Whatever makeshift arrangement emerges will be in a precarious position
No matter how it is sliced, the option of Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael plus Independents and assorted others looks inherently vulnerable. Photgraph: Niall Carson/PA
The sight of 15 Independent TDs and two Greens arriving at Merrion Street for political talks with Fine Gael illustrates just how tricky a task it is to form and maintain a new government with their support.
Can it work? Don’t bet on it.
Amid all the bluster, and there’s no shortage of that, three restrictions stand out. First is the signal to Independents from Fine Gael negotiators that local deals will not be made. Second is the notion that the process of budget formulation can be overhauled to provide an “input” for the opposition. Third are tight fiscal constraints on the work of the next administration, no matter who is in charge.
Combined, these inexorable forces call into question the prospect of a durable government taking office with Independent support. Whether that ultimately leads a reluctant Fianna Fáil into a bargain with Fine Gael is another day’s work.
Gridlock following gridlock
The ban on local deals makes sense. Leaving aside the dubious virtues of beggar-thy-neighbour politics, the reality is that Independents are so numerous as to make a succession of little local arrangements an impossibility. This goes beyond the idea of Independents receiving special constituency provisions for their support. Just as important is the idea that Independents would head off the ravages of national policy in their back yard.
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Take the case of Denis Naughten, Independent TD for Roscommon-Galway. On radio this week, he had fine words on the need to halt the political “merry-go-round” spinning since polling day. Formerly a Fine Gael deputy, he lost the whip after voting against cuts to services at Roscommon County Hospital. That was in July 2011, weeks after the outgoing Government took office.
There’s nothing to suggest any Independent would do otherwise in a minority government scenario – and their sheer numbers would greatly limit such a government’s room for manoeuvre on contentious topics. Such matters include the annual budget, a primary forum for the exercise of political power and, now, the subject of reform talk. The notion of cross-bench “input” in the budget is nebulous but must be seen as an opportunity to influence the “output”.
Quite how this might work via a strengthening of committees is unclear. It is difficult to imagine any administration, no matter what its Dáil position, yielding binding power on the budget to a committee. Make no mistake, such power would be akin to a veto.
There is more. Is the idea of strengthened committees simply a forum for glorified discussion of pre-budget submissions? If more than that was in play, would the notion be seen as a trap to tie Independents into budgetary decisions they dislike? What goes for Independents in that case would go for parties of all sizes.
This is crucial, for the State’s fiscal wriggle room is very limited. For example, the most recent forecast points to €500 million in “fiscal space” for 2017.
True, the Department of Finance must update its forecasts next month. Notwithstanding a huge rise in reported growth last year, the department may well avoid upgrading its 2016 growth projection. While any upgrade would increase the fiscal space, the department has ample reason for concern that any increase could set off a bidding war in the political talks. Spending pressure is already on the rise and a succession of transport pay claims bring with them the prospect of more public pay claims.
No matter how it’s sliced, the option of Fine Gael plus Independents and assorted others looks inherently vulnerable. The whole thing would be excessively prone to local whim and rivalry, not to mention rent-a-quote politicking whenever the going gets rough. This process will lead, ultimately, to Fianna Fáil’s door. Many of the same slippery issues will arise.