Analysis: the realities facing Ireland’s next government
Difficulties of reaching deal nothing compared to what comes next
Fine Gael’s negotiating team leaving talks in TCD on Tuesday. L to R: Leo Varadkar, Frances Fitzgerald, Paschal Donohue and Simon Coveney. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
In a year’s time Dáil deputies might look back at those 60 intractable, problematic and tedious days it took to form a government and think to themselves: “Boy, that was a cakewalk.”
The difficulties of the government-forming arithmetic may have been immense but they may be nothing compared to what happens next.
Every party and TD associated with government will get it in the neck. So will Fianna Fáil as it tries to find a newish role for a political party in Ireland - a government and opposition party all rolled up in one.
The Opposition won’t get away with predictable set-piece manouevres . The reforms that will take place in parliament will at least demand they pay lip service to the new dispensation.
Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly gave a foretaste of what will come in the Dáil on Wednesday when he pumped up the volume - literally and figuratively - to deliver an excoriating attack on Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael over Irish Water.
“I believe we are about to witness the triumph of mediocrity over modernism, of short-termism over common sense and immaturity over innovation. If the scrapping of Irish Water goes ahead, let’s call this what it is, political, economic and environmental sabotage.
“Let nobody think we are in anyway experiencing new politics here and this is the birth of a new political maturity, if the current speculation is accurate. This is 1977 all over again. Groundhog day. When unpopular local rates were abolished by Fianna Fail and people paid income tax rates of up to 60 per cent in the Eighties.”
It’s a bitter pill for Labour to swallow. The idea to introduce water charges was a Fine Gael idea and Labour reluctantly went along with it. For its trouble, it took the major electoral hit over Irish Water. Now it must be galling for it to see the Fine Gael red line being washed away by the rains of Ireland’s temperate political climate.
The formula that has been hammered out by the two big parties over Irish Water nominally suspends charges for between nine months and a year while an expert commission examines the fundamentals and the charging rationale. The utility will stay intact in some form.
Both parties say they favour a charging system but the political reality - at this moment of time - looks like this: charges are gone for the foreseeable future, maybe for ever. It would be a brave and self-confident government that would have the courage to reintroduce water charges. The decision is more likely to be deferred to a Dáil committee and don’t expect anything dramatic to come out of there.
In his own speech on Irish Water in the Dáil on Wednesday, Simon Coveney (one of the proponents of the idea within Fine Gael in 2009 and 2010) acknowledged a return of 50 seats meant the party could no longer impose its will on the Dáil and compromise was the name of the game.
It is not going to go down well with some backbenchers who stood over the chargers in the face of a fierce pasting on the doorsteps - and Wexford TD Michael D’Arcy outspoken comments reflected the frustrated mood among Fine Gael backbenchers.
But they will go along with it, as will Fianna Fáil TDs. Barring a late and unexpected breakdown, the talks on Wednesday entered a “choreography” phase. With the two parliamentary party meetings over, the talks resumed to clear the final few hurdles.
What will emerge will be a very short document, perhaps as short as a page, outlining a framework of agreement. But the unspoken part will be the agreements across a wide range of issues that will keep the Fine Gael minority government in power for two years. It will include housing, mortgage arrears, homelessness, fiscal principles, rural affairs including broadband and parliamentary reform. Irish Water is not the biggest issue facing the country but as Fianna Fáil negotiator Barry Cowen noted on Wednesday, without agreement there could have been no government.
Once the agreement is ratified, Fine Gael will commence immediate talks with interested Independents. It needs at least seven not to be reliant on Michael Lowry but may end up with as many as 10. The price of that will be concessions on local and national issues, as well as government positions, including at least three ministries.
All things being equal, Enda Kenny will become taoiseach when the Dáil reconvenes, probably next Wednesday.
It goes without saying the government will have a very different complexion from what has gone before. The long-wished for transfer of powers to parliament will become a reality.
You can be certain that at least some TDs will rue they campaigned for it. It will involve legislation and key policies being decided by committees rather than the Executive. It will entail a huge increase in the volume of work. It will mean that there will be very few “brave new world” policies - anything radical will be- well diluted by the time it is processed through committees.
The AAA-PBP alliance will continue with its unaltered course of outright opposition. Sinn Féin will have to start nuancing its response, to avoid being accused of being opportunistice and cyncial. Fianna Fáil might find itself in the dock as an “accessory before the fact” with nothing to show for it. Fine Gael might end up looking like a party that has been shorn off all its policies and principles.
And into that mix will start a succession race in Fine Gael, which will start nanoseconds after Enda Kenny is nominated as Taoiseach.
Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a turbulent journey.