The blame game: The first battle if there is a general election
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will initially try to claim the other party caused the election
Leinster House. The deal which underpins the minority Government does not expire until late next year, and picking a moment to go to the polls before then must be finely judged
One principle, more than others, has guided senior Fianna Fáil figures during difficult moments for the confidence and supply deal it struck with Fine Gael 16 month ago. As crises came and went, Fianna Fáil TDs said voters would not thank whichever party was held responsible for causing a precipitous general election.
The deal which underpins the minority Government does not expire until late next year, and picking a moment to go to the polls before then must be finely judged.
If we end up having an election, the first battle between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will be over who is to blame for actually causing it. Polls have consistently shown a significant majority of voters do not want one anytime soon.
Fine Gael’s line of attack was evident on Thursday night as TDs sought to tie Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin together.
One Cabinet Minister sought to characterise Fianna Fáil’s decision to table a motion of no confidence in Frances Fitzgerald, following Sinn Féin’s similar motion, as a “calculated move”. This, it was claimed, was not a “coincidence following Sinn Féin’s change on coalition”.
The Minister was referring to Sinn Féin’s abandonment of its insistence it will only enter a coalition government as the senior party in it, and its recent signals it is open for business as a junior partner.
It will be a point Fine Gael will attempt to return to again and again if there is an election campaign even though Micheál Martin has ruled out such a prospect repeatedly.
“It won’t work,” said one Fianna Fáil TD. “Because we’ll keep saying it won’t happen.”
The theatre of a breakdown – with the Dáil’s dissolution, if there is to be one, expected on Tuesday – will also be used by Fine Gael against Fianna Fail, who will have to move its motion in the Dáil for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to formally judge the confidence and supply deal dead. Only then will he call an election, and paint Fianna Fáil’s motion as the casus belli.
It will also be argued that Fitzgerald’s forgetfulness about a departmental email is hardly a hanging offence.
Of course, Fianna Fáil will disagree, and accuse Fitzgerald and the Department of Justice of rank incompetence in how they dealt with the legal strategy pursued by former Garda commissioner Noirín O’Sullivan against whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe at the O’Higgins commission, which was investigating malpractice in the force.
“He seems determined to go to the people and support one Minister who misled him last week and another who withheld info and let her mislead,” said a Fianna Fáil source of Varadkar, Fitzgerald and Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan. “Confidence and supply does not give a blank cheque on incompetence and lack of credibility, and he knows that.”
Fianna Fáil will also, despite Varadkar’s record in calling McCabe “distinguished” in 2014, try to cast Fine Gael as uncaring about whistleblowers, before swiftly attempting to move the debate on to the Government’s record on housing, health and public services in general.
“Fine Gael shouldn’t fool themselves that this will be an election about politics; it will be about the substance of health and housing,” the source added. “It will be about record homelessness which they admit will get worse under their plans. It will be about their regressive tax policies, and their failure to address issue after issue after issue.”
Come polling day most voters will not decide who to support on the basis of who caused an election. Issues of much greater substance will take over, but whoever wins the blame game will win the first battle of the electoral war.