Pat Leahy: Fianna Fáil has many reasons to reject Enda Kenny’s offer

Fine Gael offer if accepted, would make for major realignment of political landscape

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin with acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Kenny’s partnership offer is the first time that such an approach has been made between the two big parties. File photograph: Aidan Crawley

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin with acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Kenny’s partnership offer is the first time that such an approach has been made between the two big parties. File photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

In politics, as in war, there is a difference between tactics and strategy. The US military academy teaches its cadets to look at a mission on three levels: objective, strategy and tactics.

Enda Kenny’s objective is to form a stable government that has Fine Gael at the centre. His strategy is to put together a coalition that includes Independents and, if possible, other parties. He has employed differing tactics to take himself and his party towards that goal.

There is a difference between tactics and strategy. Tactics are the steps that serve the strategy. Without wishing to labour the point, tactics may buy you a short-term advantage, but only an effective strategy delivers your goal.

Kenny’s big offer is both genuine and tactical. It is, in this age of firsts in Irish politics, the first time that such an approach has been made between the two big parties.

If accepted it would make for a fundamental realignment of the political landscape.

It is also designed to put Fianna Fáil on the back foot, to reframe the political context by putting it up to Fianna Fáil: does the party want to govern or not? What is Fianna Fáil afraid of? Won’t it think of the national interest?

The danger for Kenny is that this tactical manoeuvre – though initially successful – undermines his strategy for achieving its objective.

By sidelining the Independents he makes it more difficult to get their agreement to join a government.

By ambushing Fianna Fáil he endangers the party’s co-operation with any minority Fine Gael government.

The offer certainly raises the stakes: if the prospect of government is closer, so is a slide to a general election.

Because whatever the consequences, there is little evidence that Fianna Fáil will accept the offer.

Those of us who write about politics are frequently asked to predict the future: a perilous business. Better, often, to simply report what is observable now.

Yesterday’s Fianna Fáil parliamentary meeting was “conclusive and decisive” in its rejection of the Fine Gael offer, according to insider reports.

Micheál Martin’s view has not changed. According to people in regular contact with the views of the organisation, they remain robustly opposed to a coalition with Fine Gael.

One Seanad candidate on the election trail reported “strong resistance” among the councillors that he is canvassing every day.

Grassroots

So why is Fianna Fáil, a party whose defining characteristic throughout its history has been dedication to the acquisition, exercise and retention of power, passing up this opportunity to join a government?

There is no single answer, but rather a mixture of explanations, motivations, principles and prejudices.

Some Fianna Fáilers have a tribal abhorrence to the concept, best expressed by those who say things like “my mother would turn in her grave”.

Others say “maybe someday, but not now”. Others believe, correctly, that it’s what their enemies want; they usually mention Sinn Féin.

And others remind you that five weeks ago they solicited votes for Fianna Fáil on the express understanding that in exactly these circumstances the party would not enter government with Fine Gael.

The best answer, I think, is one that turns the question on its head.

Fianna Fáil is actually not opposed to sharing power with Fine Gael. But it is opposed to sharing power on Fine Gael’s terms, and in a position where there is no political advantage for it.

All parties closely identify the national interest with their own interests; this is a pillar of the belief system that political membership and activism entails. This allows them to act selfishly but in the honest belief that it is the right thing for their community and the country. Democratic systems are founded on this necessary egotism: candidates must believe it is better for all if they are in power.

Fianna Fáil simply has too many reasons to reject Fine Gael’s offer.

Compromise

By demonstrating that he is willing to make any compromise to put a government together, he has shifted at least some of the burden of responsibility for any second election to Fianna Fáil.

But the fact is Kenny’s offer has been rebuffed (as he must have expected) and we are left where we were after the second vote for taoiseach on Wednesday. To recap: there are two options – another election or a minority Fine Gael-Independent coalition facilitated by Fianna Fáil.

The window for the latter option is closing. Kenny needs seven Independent votes to make it to the 58 votes that would give him a Dáil majority with Fianna Fáil abstentions. If he does not lock the seven votes down by next Thursday he will be defeated in a vote for taoiseach for the third time. Realpolitik inside his own party means he won’t get too many more goes at it after that.

Even the diehards in Fianna Fáil admit that the great rapprochement will come someday. But the reaction to Kenny’s offer suggests that day is not here yet.

The desperate hunt for Independent votes – not the healing of the civil war divide between the two big parties – is where the decisive political action of the coming days will be.

Pat Leahy is deputy political editor

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