Fianna Fáil is caught between a rock and a very hard place

Analysis: Party must support a Fine Gael-led government or trigger an election

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.  Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

If there is one thing that stirs the political loins of the ordinary Fianna Fáiler, it is the thought of Fine Gael “arrogance”.

Into that always open marketplace walked Richard Bruton this week, when he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland there was no way Fine Gael would contemplate supporting a Fianna Fáil-led minority government.

“The arrogance,” sniffed one Fianna Fáil figure, summing up the mood that Bruton’s statement had pushed some sort of governmental arrangement with Fine Gael back a few more weeks. “It certainly didn’t soften anyone.”

Bruton was repeating what others – including Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar – had said before and what Fine Gael TD Eoghan Murphy defended and repeated later in the week, dangling the political red meat in front of Fianna Fáil noses.

“This thing of ‘any colour as long as it is blue’ is not acceptable’,” said one Fianna Fáil TD. “They need to respect us and respect our voters.”

The reality, however, is that Fianna Fáil sensitivity betrays the truth the party has effectively already come to accept: it will almost certainly have to support or facilitate a Fine Gael-led minority government.

The Dáil numbers are against Micheál Martin and for that reason, the hearts of some Independent TDs might tell them Fianna Fáil – though their heads say Fine Gael.

Fianna Fáil outrage over statements from the mild-mannered Bruton may just be a tactic to delay the inevitable, but there is a genuine feeling that Fine Gael must soften its tone if the two parties are to work together.

Media battle

In the likely event of the vast majority of Independents sitting on their hands, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will still continue to pursue a minority government while simultaneously talking to each other.

“Some Independents won’t declare at all, some will go to Fine Gael and we may get a very small few,” said a Fianna Fáil source, acknowledging the reality facing the party while predicting a government will not be formed for another three to four weeks.

Fianna Fáil TDs, however, do get a sense that Martin knows what he is doing and, bar some low-level grumbling about initially losing the media battle to Fine Gael, are happy with how the leadership is handling the post-election fallout.

A sizeable cohort of deputies have chosen to stay silent in case they say something that takes the party down a road Martin does not want to travel.

“A lot of us just don’t want to know,” said one. Another said: “There is absolute trust in Micheál.”

There are still some, notably Michael McGrath, the finance spokesman and head of the Fianna Fáil negotiating team, who are believed to be in favour of a full-blown coalition with Fine Gael. Dublin Bay South’s Jim O’Callaghan, who is also on the negotiating team, is another who has previously said he is open to coalition.

O’Callaghan is also understood to be the back channel through which Fine Gael made some sort of initial contact with Fianna Fáil, via a text message from Varadkar.

Party members are open to the idea of supporting a Fine Gael minority government, say TDs, but have not yet digested how it could work in practice.

Members of the parliamentary party admit they haven’t either.

“I don’t think a lot of them have thought it through, and we probably haven’t either,” said one deputy.

Martin this week told some TDs that their workloads will substantially increase in a Dáil with a strengthened committee system, news which will come as a shock to deputies who keenly tend the constituency.

Policy concessions

The negotiations with Fine Gael could initially focus on how a minority government may actually work, which Fianna Fáil wants to be taken on a “budget-by-budget, issue-by-issue” basis. TDs believe such an arrangement could last two to three years.

It will also attempt to extract some policy concessions from Fine Gael, the most contentious of which will be on Irish Water.

Figures from both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil concede the issue has taken on political importance out of all proportion to what it would cost to scrap the charges.

Fine Gael has held fast to its insistence that charging and a single national utility are fundamental issues.

Fianna Fáil maintains its position that water charges must be suspended for five years and Irish Water must be scrapped but party figures and TDs acknowledge that compromise is likely, although the feeling against water charges is stronger among some Dublin TDs.

Dublin Fingal’s Darragh O’Brien, however, said housing, homeless and families in mortgage distress were of paramount importance.

With Sinn Féin waiting to pounce, water will be one of the first issues settled between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

“It has to be or the Shinners will bring down the government within one month,” said a Fianna Fáil source.

Second election

Carlow-Kilkenny’s Bobby Aylward recently conducted a survey among 500 Fianna Fáil members in his own constituency.

He asked who would favour a possible coalition with Fine Gael and who would favour a second election.

Of the 200 responses, 80 per cent were against coalition and almost 100 per cent were against another election.

“Only two people said to me: go to the country if you have to,” he said.

The gap between the two results of Aylward’s straw poll is the distance over which Martin must bring Fianna Fáil in the coming weeks.

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