Government formation remains in a state of uncertainty

Analysis: Fine Gael TDs fear Independents do not fully grasp the reality of power

‘It has been more than a month since the country voted in the general election but the pathway to government formation looks as uncertain as it did when the results first came in.’ File photograph: Aidan Crawley

‘It has been more than a month since the country voted in the general election but the pathway to government formation looks as uncertain as it did when the results first came in.’ File photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

It has been more than a month since the country voted in the general election but the pathway to government formation looks as uncertain as it did when the results first came in.

When the people spoke at the ballot box they did so in a coded language, and no politician has yet been able to crack it.

It is not yet the longest period between an election and a government taking power seen in the State.

After the general election in November 1992 it took 42 days to form a government.

There was no difficulty with actual numbers back then: it was more to do with existential matters.

Fianna Fáil and Labour both had to absorb a fundamental sea-change in their core direction to reach a deal.

This time both problems, existential and numbers, loom.

There is a slim chance a government will be in place on April 6th when the Dáil returns to vote on nominations for taoiseach.

But given the piecemeal progress in discussions so far, it still looks more likely that it will be mid-April before an administration is agreed.

Temporary chaos

Enda Kenny

But if that is the case, it will be a very different type of administration than any seen before.

It will be our equivalent of Dagen H, the day in 1967 when Sweden decided to switch from driving on the left hand side of the road to the right. What ensued was temporary chaos and confusion.

After a while, this strange new arrangement began to become normalised.

The scale of the task was brought home on Thursday when Fine Gael made its first major move with a day-long session involving its negotiators and 15 Independent and two Green Party TDs.

Including advisers and officials, there were more than 50 people packed into a room in Government buildings for more than six hours.

Fine Gael’s approach marked a big departure from previous discussions on government formation.

For one, Fine Gael decided it would produce no document setting out where it stands. This is highly unusual as a document is seen as the foundation of negotiations.

In 1992, Fianna Fáil adviser Martin Mansergh scoured the Labour manifesto looking for points of agreement and produced a document that chimed with Dick Spring’s objectives.

Even this time Fianna Fáil has distributed a 54-page document setting out its principles and ambitions.

“I have no power to control the agenda,” Kenny told the room. “This will be done in good faith, with no surprise.”

Priority issues

The first session was taken up by the first of those: housing. No conclusion was reached. When the talks resume tomorrow, the housing discussion will continue.

“We could be here until the end of the year talking,” said one Independent TD. A Fine Gael TD also agreed.

“We need to up the pace of the talks and get some momentum going. Thursday was useful as a ‘getting to know you’ session but we really need to kick on.”

Rural affairs, disability, climate change and the environment, and the elderly are next on the agenda followed by finance; health; and education.

Party officials will prepare a working paper on each issue based on the discussions.

The housing paper should be ready tomorrow. Those working papers will form the basis of a possible programme for government.

There are concerns among some Fine Gael TDs that some Independents don’t fully realise the new reality that power involves responsibility and ceding of ground.

Of the 17, unsurprisingly the two Green Party TDs are seen as the only group which is wholly consistent.

The two groups of Independents are not wholly “sticky” and there are some rumblings that ultimately neither will act as a group.

‘New situation’

“They have to realise it’s a new situation here and they have to step up to the plate.”

Another senior Minister said: “I could see us coming to an agreement with maybe five to 10 which puts us in a stronger position in seeking support from Fianna Fáil as a minority government . . . It’s not a good position to be in. We need to start preparations for an election soon enough.”

Fianna Fáil has scheduled to meet most of the same group of 17 on Wednesday and is still saying publicly it can form a government.

But the reality is it will struggle with numbers and at some stage there needs to be a conversation between Kenny and Micheál Martin.

The reality is a new Tallaght Strategy, mirroring the policy followed by Fine Gael in 1987 where it did not oppose economic reforms proposed by the Fianna Fáil minority government in the national interest.

In the Tallaght Strategy Mark II, +Fianna Fáil would abstain on key votes like the budget or issues like “no confidence” motions on Irish Water.

Short leash

Fine Gael might have its own ideas on its main rival choosing to support it on an a la carte basis and might insist on locked-in guarantees on key issues or on a temporal basis.

Many Independents considering the plunge into government may also ask Fianna Fáíl to provide inflatable armbands to ensure they stay afloat for an agreed – preferably long – period.

Fianna Fáil is unlikely to give such guarantees. What it may agree to do is allow every contentious Bill to go through an exhaustive pre-legislative scrutiny process at committee.

Then, when it comes to a vote, most of the rancour will have been smoothed out, avoiding division or guillotined debates.

When the Dáil convenes on April 6th,it will be 40 days of wilderness for the political class.

It is highly likely the unenviable record from 1992 will be broken this time.

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