Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil inch towards government formation

Greens’ internal issues have made Labour a more attractive option as coalition partners

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been  clear that a third party is needed, not just Independents, to form a new government. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been clear that a third party is needed, not just Independents, to form a new government. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

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It has almost become a ritual at this stage: a dull paragraph landing in inboxes midweek to report the latest turn of the wheel in the slow bicycle race between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to form the next government.

This week’s joint statement after the latest meeting offered the usual bland language about positive engagements and policy exchanges, but little more of substance.

Once the dominant forces in Irish politics, the two parties are expected next week to produce a document detailing how a coalition between them might work, before asking smaller Dáil parties and Independents to join talks.

Yet Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar – who have both ruled out doing business with Sinn Féin – have thus far been met with a wall of apathy from the Green Party, Labour and the Social Democrats.

Between them, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have 72 Dáil seats, eight short of a majority. Others are needed, with Varadkar clear that a third party is needed, not just Independents. His view is shared by Fianna Fáil.

Or, as one Fianna Fáil TD bluntly put it of a government reliant on disparate Independents alone: “You’d be afraid to go to the toilet in case it’d fall.”

Everyone concerned has had video- and tele-conference meetings by the score this week, away from the usual chatting and plotting over coffees that is normally the fare in Leinster House.

Greens

The Greens repeated that they want a national unity government involving everyone: but the debate in the party about if – and on what terms – it should enter government talks continues.

Opinion in the party is fractured, along four key lines. Some believe the Greens should enter government to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. Some say the same, but add that they should extract a policy price in their favourite subjects. Then there are those who say that a new term in power must be based on ambitious policy goals that go far beyond Covid-19. Finally, there are those who believe that a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael construct must be avoided at all costs.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan lies at one end. Newly-elected Dublin Central TD Neasa Hourigan is at the other, describing Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael’s current proposal as a “naked power grab based on personal political ambition”.

Yet the picture of Ryan as an isolated figure is not shared by some within the Greens, who say the in-out tug of war is still being waged. “It is very close,” said one party source.

Even if the Greens do eventually opt for office, the party’s internal debates have turned some in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael off. Ten of their 12 TDs are new, and politically inexperienced, they grumble.

Meanwhile, some in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael believe that the Greens may not have had time to gel as a group: “Do you really want to go into government with half a parliamentary party which doesn’t want to be there?” asked a Fine Gael TD.

The Greens’ internal issues have made Labour a more attractive option. However, the Labour parliamentary party this week reasserted its view that it should go into opposition.

Some in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael hope that new leader Alan Kelly could reverse that position, but Kelly has told colleagues that while Labour should talk, it should enter opposition, too.

Following his election, the Tipperary TD could try to bring Labour into power, but a new leader is unlikely to want the split the party he has just inherited, says one Labour source.

Kelly’s leadership rival, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, strongly opposed coalition, though both men have left open the possibility of facilitating a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael government from opposition without joining it.

A second election this year may be needed to “clear the decks” after a crisis that has upended old assumptions about the State’s role, said a Labour TD. This year’s election is already a foreign land: “That was a different time.”

The Social Democrats have six TDs, like Labour, but have said that their policies are incompatible with those of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. They are strongly against entering coalition.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney recently instigated contact with Róisín Shortall, the Social Democrats co-leader, with no success: “There hasn’t been much reciprocal contact from us,” said a party source.

“Even the best diplomatic skills finessed in Iveagh House won’t crack that nut,” said one experienced TD of Coveney’s efforts to bring Shortall and the Social Democrats around.

Independent TDs

Independent TDs called on Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to draft a document before approaching anyone else for support, but few in their ranks expect much from it.

“The problem is going to happen when they come out with something so lame that it won’t mean anything to anybody,” said a member of the Regional Independent Group, which includes former minister Denis Naughten.

That view is shared even by some in Fine Gael “I find it hard to believe that anything they will come up with will pique the interest of any other parties,” said one well-placed figure.

The nine regional group TDs could create a Dáil majority of one, but the group is not seen, even by itself, as steady enough to prop up a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael government: “There needs to be four legs to this stool,” said one of its members.

Though the Independent Alliance was barely tolerated by Fine Gael in the last Dáil, it broadly held together after the 2016 general election, with its de facto leader Shane Ross using its cohesion to parlay his way to the Cabinet table.

However, the regional Independents group is looser again. In reality, it is little more than a technical group brought together to wing greater Dáil speaking time, rather than a coherent negotiating bloc.

Other Independents – such as Marian Harkin, Michael Fitzmaurice and Michael McNamara – are also seen as in play.

The decreasing prospects of stable government are changing the opinions of some in Fine Gael, who were prepared for opposition after the drubbing they received in February.

Some senior figures in Fine Gael now see a September election as possible, even probable, though this, they insist, is not linked to the public support enjoyed during the coronavirus crisis – support that could quickly fade.

Even his colleagues cannot divine Varadkar’s true intentions, with claims that he is delivering different messages to different audiences within the parliamentary party.

For those who are against coalition, he talks of how much he would like to be leader of the opposition, while those who favour government hear of how a government should be formed, sources say.

Coalition opponents blame Coveney, seeing him as most wanting a Fianna Fáil deal. Some close to Varadkar seem content to play along with that, which raises suspicions that the two men are playing a cute game to bring others along.

Privately, some Fine Gael Ministers say the current process needs to be exhausted until other options are examined, with even the Greens’ suggestion of a national government involving Sinn Féin not fully discounted.

Senior Fine Gael figures insist that Sinn Féin is out, and will stay out; and that the Fianna Fáil talks are genuine. However, a failure to build a three-party coalition would “reset” matters, although what a “reset” would mean was not explained. Internally in Fine Gael, the Taoiseach has pulled off a remarkable escape from being blamed for an election result which saw his party drop to 35 seats, behind both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.

Instead, numerous sources say that the grumbling now mostly focuses on Paschal Donohoe, the Minister for Finance, who served as director of elections: “Paschal’s star isn’t what it used to be,” said one TD.

Fine Gael could sacrifice Donohoe’s job to win a deal with Fianna Fáil for the full term of a coalition government, if Varadkar gets first dibs at being taoiseach first, say some.

Varadkar and Martin both hinted this week that Martin could go first, by noting that Fianna Fáil had more seats, but those close to the Taoiseach downplayed Varadkar’s own remarks.

For now, Fianna Fáil wants to move steadily forward to form a government. Fine Gael at times seems content to zig-zag along a winding path to run down the clock, helped by the chatter of a second election.

However, others believe that Varadkar will ditch his demand for a third party: “Leo also said we wouldn’t go into government and all that stuff,” said one.

For now, Varadkar has the luxury of delay. Micheál Martin does not. His TDs are privately clear that his leadership will not survive a failure to bring his party into power, but the Fianna Fáil negotiating position is probably the weakest of all.

The public health and economic crises have rendered many of the last election manifesto promises moot, but they are still there. However, the document, which is tightly held, is heavy on aspiration.

Housing, health and climate change predictably feature, though it is understood that drafts of Fine Gael documents included versions of its election plans for tax cuts and welfare increases.

“Is there anything in there that is going to collapse the whole thing?” asked a senior Fianna Fáil figure. “I’d think not. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will reach agreement. The interesting thing will be what happens after that.”

Crisis point

Smaller parties are reluctant to get involved, said a senior Fianna Fáiler, so matters might “come to a moment of absolute crisis” – such as an inability to pass vital Covid-19 legislation because the Oireachtas cannot pass laws.

New, yet unimagined, legislation may be needed but cannot be passed because the Seanad, according to legal advice, is not properly constituted until a new taoiseach appoints 11 senators.

Internally, Fianna Fáil has slowly come to terms with the idea of a deal with Fine Gael, though scepticism still runs deep. Possible ministers are, understandably, keener than those who will stay as backbenchers.

Each parliamentary party meeting sees a chink of additional dissent to Martin’s negotiating strategy. This week it was first-time TD Cathal Crowe, who called for a national unity government, not a deal with Fine Gael.

Martin said the Dáil is unlikely to meet again until late April and Varadkar says a government involving his party will not be formed for several weeks. There are many stages left in this process.

If a deal does happen – together alone, or with another, it will need to be ratified by special party conferences . Postal ballots are now likely to replace huge, fractious events involving divided delegates.

Sinn Féin’s efforts to form a government of the left have halted, although they still want to form an administration. Leader Mary Lou McDonald has not ruled out a national unity government.

However, Sinn Féin, in common with other parties in Leinster House, does not think that such a government would lend itself to satisfactory decision-making, especially.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, Sinn Féin explicitly told Greens, publicly and privately, that entering government with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would not honour the election result.

For now, McDonald has begun to act as the presumptive leader of the opposition in a Dáil that will be different from anything before. “The public will have seen a government do things they had said never could be done,” said one TD. “The question will be: why can’t we do that with the trolley crisis, why can’t we do that with the housing crisis? There will be an increased appetite for change after the crisis.”

However, all of that is for the times to come. For now, Varadkar as Taoiseach, albeit in a caretaker capacity, still enjoys the gift of seeking a dissolution of the Dáil from President Michael D Higgins. An election would be difficult.

Even those loosely contemplating it say September is the earliest it could happen, and then only with restricted campaigning. “Nobody wants an election,” said one government figure, “But politicians need to form a government to prevent it.”

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