Geraldine Kennedy: Lack of trust between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is real obstacle

A national coalition is on the way, even if TDs don’t quite see it that way yet

Acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.  Photograph Maxpix

Acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photograph Maxpix

 

The shape of things to come is emerging slowly as the 32nd Dáil prepares to meet for the second time today.

There will be a new national coalition government sometime in April – not a Fine Gael minority government – and it will be supported from outside on key agreed policy issues by Fianna Fáil for a specified period.

But not many of the TDs elected to the new Dáil, party and non-party, see that yet. They are still fumbling and feeling their way towards the new political reality they have to face. A general election isn’t a referendum. You can’t go back to the people, as was done in the Nice referendum, and expect a different result.

In the short term, most voters would repeat more emphatically their preferences that brought about the most inconclusive election result, the most hung Dáil ever, and force the political parties to come to terms with what they have said. They have spoken: some on Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil traditional party allegiances, some on Sinn Féin, some on local, some on rural, some on pressing social issues, some to deliver a big protest vote.

And, there are many people during the 2016 election who cross-voted, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, because the parties of stability in the general election were Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil. There were a lot of shy Fine Gael voters who “lent” their votes and high preferences to Fianna Fáil this time, in a reversal of what Fianna Fáil did in 2011.

Committed at the hip

They are all reading their results and their mandates as an absolute endorsement of all the stances they took during the campaign. Sinn Féin would not support any government unless it was the biggest party. So, as Mrs Thatcher infamously said at the summit in London in the run-up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, they are “out, out, out”.

More relevant and more interesting, of course, is what the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, said – that he was campaigning to lead an alternative government. Fianna Fáil would not go into coalition with Fine Gael or Sinn Féin. It would not support the return of Enda Kenny as taoiseach.

So, on mature reflection, just over three weeks after the general election, where are they now?

The result was so shocking that it has taken time for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the only parties with the numbers to form a stable government, to come to terms with it: Fine Gael to accept that its campaign strategy and tax policy so wrongly reflected the mood of the people; Fianna Fáil to think that it won the election only to realise now it is not the largest party.

What are the prospects of a stable, working government now?

Serious attempt

The next meeting of the Dáil is on April 6th, where the really serious attempt to select Enda Kenny or Micheál Martin to be the next taoiseach will play out. Both parties have been wooing Independent TDs and members of the smaller parties. It is expected that Kenny will have more votes than Martin. A new reality, then, dawns for the 32nd Dáil.

In this situation, where no party has been given a majority by voters, Fine Gael can’t possibly have 30 of their 50 TDs in ministerial positions. They seem to accept that in their talks with Independent TDs. They have to offer the Green Party and Independents with a national, as well as a local voice, positions in Cabinet. It appears that the Social Democrats wants to be a party of opposition.

If it wants to attract the necessary support from Fianna Fáil, it would be advisable for Fine Gael to call itself something other than a Fine Gael minority government. Something like a national coalition for change, a national alliance, anything to put a more acceptable face on things for Fianna Fáil.

The democratic danger now, in talks that will only begin after the April 6th meeting of the Dáil, is that Fianna Fáil could find itself by default in Tallaght Mark 2. It will then be tied in to propping up the new government and punished for its downfall if it causes an early election.

Key policy priorities

Fianna Fáil has some notion that, in new Dáil reform proposals, it must have legislative approval for the defeat of the government, as happens frequently in the House of Commons. It has got this wrong. The only constitutional imperatives for the defeat of the government are a defeat on the annual budget or a motion of confidence which can be tabled every six months. The rest is custom and practice.

The only thing standing in the way of a government of necessary political, Dáil and policy reform is the lack of trust between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. And vice versa. That is real.