Green Party glue holding new alliances together in changed political landscape
Smaller parties are now working with Fianna Fáil in ways that should worry Fine Gael
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan with local election candidates at the launch of the party’s successful campaign. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Warm congratulations for Paul McAuliffe, the new Fianna Fáil Lord Mayor of Dublin, came from ally and opponent, as is customary on such occasions.
Dublin City Council was meeting for the first time since the local elections, which took place a month ago this weekend, and McAuliffe was being installed as the latest occupant of the Mansion House thanks to an alliance between his party, the Greens, Labour and the Social Democrats.
In the meeting in City Hall a fortnight ago, representatives of most political groupings offered their good wishes. Green councillor Neasa Hourigan said McAuliffe was “one of the first people I met when I walked in to this building”.
“I admit I had some trepidation about walking in here. I have found Paul open and interested and engaged and aware of all the issues and very clued up on the things we wanted to talk about.”
It led to some raised eyebrows among other councillors, with one taking a more cynical view about why Fianna Fáil was being so nice. “She was the kingmaker. Fianna Fáil knew the score.”
In a number of councils, particularly around Dublin, Fianna Fáil moved swiftly to build alliances with smaller parties, where possible. Other councillors gossiped and speculated that it could foreshadow the shape of the next government after a Dáil election.
But what happens in local authorities is not a harbinger of what may follow on a national level. If it were, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would have formed a grand coalition years ago, since their councillors consistently divide up the chains of office on local authorities. Sinn Féin would have entered Government Buildings too, if the local translated to the national, having had its share of mayors.
Yet a pattern emerged on three of the four Dublin councils, where there is arguably a greater plurality of parties with relatively strong presences. In Fingal, Dublin city and Dún Laoghaire, the Greens and Labour entered into alliances with Fianna Fáil, with the Social Democrats and Independents joining where needed. On South Dublin County Council, the Greens combined with Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Independents
The arrangements were enough to spook Fine Gael into pushing a “vote Green, get Fianna Fáil” attack line over recent weeks.
Some in Leo Varadkar’s inner circle ( even when Fine Gael polled 35 per cent in presidential exit polls last October – a tally which would put the party on a path to a majority coalition) feared a Fianna Fáil/Green/Labour/Social Democrats government “would be as likely” as the Taoiseach getting another term. The outcome of the local elections and their resulting alliances may have exacerbated such fears.
A warmth was already developing across the Opposition benches in Leinster House and, according to one Labour figure, has grown further since the elections last month.
“A good working relationship has developed with Fianna Fáil, the Greens and the Soc Dems,” said the Labour source.” There is a friendly attitude and I’ve detected it even more so after the local and Euro elections. The direction of travel seems to be heading in that direction. There is no great love for Fine Gael, they are tired and out of ideas.”
There is a belief among councillors that Labour needs to further rebuild in opposition but, alongside that, there is a dislike of Fine Gael
Warm feelings aside, all acknowledge raw parliamentary arithmetic will decide the next government. But a number of trends emerging on the Opposition benches, from policy to personality alignment, should worry Fine Gael.
It may yet matter when Varadkar faces off against Micheál Martin both at the next general election and after it – in the contest to win more Dáil seats and the subsequent rush to form a government.
Persuading Labour to go back into power at all will be difficult. Re-entering government so soon after dropping to just seven seats at the last election is acknowledged by one party veteran to be “a minority view”.
There is a belief among councillors that Labour needs to further rebuild in opposition but, alongside that, there is a dislike of Fine Gael.
This attitude is informed as much by Labour’s bruising period in government between 2011 and 2016 as it is Fine Gael being worn down by almost a decade in office.
“There was a sense of people being sick of Fine Gael and we wanted to send that message to the top,” said one Labour councillor who was instrumental in striking a deal with Fianna Fáil locally. “I don’t think Brendan Howlin is deaf to the message, he is aware of it. It is just to reaffirm it.”
Dublin Labour councillor Dermot Lacey also expressed opposition to Fine Gael, although he too believes what happens on councils is not an indication of future government formation. “I wouldn’t overestimate it. But it is fair to say there wasn’t a great desire to do a deal with Fine Gael.”
Another Dublin Labour councillor, Rebecca Moynihan, said Fine Gael was “isolated” in the post local election negotiations “simply because the length of time they are in government”.
“They are tired, their activists are tired. The energy came from Fianna Fáil.”
In Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, where Fine Gael is the largest party, Fianna Fáil still managed to build an alliance with Labour, the Greens, the Social Democrats and Independents.
Howlin himself acknowledges that a desire to shut Fine Gael out on local authorities was at play in recent weeks.
“There is a notion that there needs to be political churn because people do get stale at local and at national level and I think we do need to have a churn in terms of party perspectives as well,” the Wexford TD said, adding that it could also be a factor in government formation – particularly if Fine Gael does not change its policy offering.
Ryan has acknowledged it will be hard to stay out of government if he is arguing a few short years remain to put policies in place to help save the planet
“If Fine Gael is elected into the next government, they will be bidding for a third term. Our experience of third-term parties hasn’t been great. They run out of ideas. Unless of course they were allied with a different policy platform that freshened up their focus – and that can happen too.”
Green Party TD and leader Eamon Ryan believes “third-term fatigue” is “just inevitable”, but says that doesn’t preclude his party from entering government with Fine Gael.
“It wouldn’t be that you’d say you can’t talk to them because they’d have three terms in government. You’d still work with them.”
Ryan has acknowledged it will be hard to stay out of government if he is arguing a few short years remain to put policies in place to help save the planet.
Patrick Costello, the Green leader on Dublin City Council, said the processes of building alliances on councils and in government “are entirely different”.
“It kind of just comes down to where the numbers are at. Who agrees with us? Who can help us achieve it?”
Unsurprisingly, housing was a major issue in his council negotiations. “There is a lot of dissatisfaction with housing policy coming out of Fine Gael,” added Costello, claiming the Government is “ideologically opposed” to significant State intervention, a charge Fine Gael denies.
Michael Pidgeon, another Green councillor, agrees that local configurations will not affect national alliances. “It is the function of the numbers you get in a number of individual councils,” he says, while adding he has “a huge problem with the housing issue”.
Another Green councillor says there are “huge issues with the sort of policies FG are pushing at a national level”, while adding Fianna Fáil proposed “nothing off the wall” in their local haggling.
The Government’s approach to housing is repeatedly raised by Labour and Green councillors, with many claiming Fine Gael just “don’t get it” or “have no sense of housing” – again, a charge Fine Gael vigorously denies.
“Fianna Fáil get housing more than Fine Gael, even though Fianna Fáil would respond more through private build than we would,” says Labour’s Lacey.
The position of Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy is raised too, with Fine Gael backbenchers also expressing doubts privately about his performance and if he, indeed, “gets it”.
The Greens participated in the initial stages of the marathon 2016 talks to form the current government, but Ryan says housing was the issue that dissuaded them from entering office.
“We kind of looked at it and thought: ‘They are very market orientated, they don’t seem to get the need for a change in policy’.”
The Government’s approach has not changed in the interim, he adds.
Those involved say the convergence of policy views allowed written agreements to be produced in Dublin City, Dún Laoghaire and Fingal – a relatively novel approach on councils. Green sources privately say Fianna Fáil put forward ideas that were more compatible with their own.
Away from their dealings with bigger parties, Labour and the Greens worked together during the local elections, such as operating a voting pact in Louth. Howlin wants to form a “progressive alliance” on the centre left to negotiate any entry into government.
Similar to what happened on some councils, both parties are likely to want political cover from the other if they are to strike a coalition deal with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.
And although council alliances do not predict future governments, the developments of recent weeks should offer some lessons to Martin and Varadkar, both of whom are likely to need Labour and the Greens on their side if they are to lead the next government.