Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael fear they are in a lose-lose scenario

Dozens of inter-party meetings have taken place, many of them going on for hours

As long as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael continue to rule out talking to Mary Lou McDonald about a coalition Sinn Féin is headed for opposition. Photograph: PA Wire

As long as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael continue to rule out talking to Mary Lou McDonald about a coalition Sinn Féin is headed for opposition. Photograph: PA Wire

 

Another week of comings and goings on the plinth at Leinster House; another week of “constructive” – though preliminary – discussions.

There were breakout groups, tea and biscuits and the beginnings of back-channel contacts between the parties, which may yet prove important. But three weeks on from the general election, there is no serious business being done yet. And it is not clear when there will be.

“Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey,” says one of the main players in the talks, reluctant to be drawn on the details of the negotiations. He is clear that the process has been useful so far, allowing people to suss each other out, to begin engagement on policy, to build relationships. He is also clear that a coalition deal before Easter is unlikely.

It’s not that the parties are idle – anything but. There have been dozens of meetings, many of them going on for hours, to which the participants are ready to attest. As Pearse Doherty, the Sinn Féin finance spokesman, noted (perhaps somewhat wearily) on Tuesday, his party’s negotiating teams had met with the Green Party team for more than 7½ hours.

Sinn Féin insists it wants government, but a blind man can see the attraction of opposition. In this respect at least, the current politics looks like a win-win the party

The Greens also met Fianna Fáil for several hours over two days – engagements to which Fianna Fáil brought a 15-strong negotiating and research team. The Greens are involving all 12 of their TDs, with help from staff and even the leader of the Northern Irish Greens, Clare Bailey.

Sinn Féin has also met Independent TDs, who have assembled themselves into three different groups. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin also met some Independents and the Social Democrats. He spoke to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar by phone on Tuesday, arranging a “policy exchange” between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for next week.

Sinn Féin rallies

Last meeting of the week was on Friday, when Sinn Féin met Solidarity-People Before Profit, whose TDs have offered Mary Lou McDonald conditional – highly conditional, actually – support.

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said he would ask the Labour Party to join its efforts to assemble a minority left-wing coalition led by Sinn Féin. Yes, the Labour Party – excoriated regularly, and at not inconsiderable volume, by the same Boyd Barrett for its “betrayal” of its voters in working-class communities. His chances of success in that particular wooing do not appear to be overwhelming.

Sinn Féin has also been busy outside Leinster House with a series of public meetings (or rallies, if you prefer) at venues across the country intended as part victory parade, part conversation with its new and old voters, and part political device to put pressure on the Greens, and strengthen its narrative of exclusion by the “establishment” parties. The meetings were well-attended (boosted by condemnation from the Taoiseach), lively and effective. Expect more in the future.

But the continuing centrality of Sinn Féin to the post-election politics can’t hide the fact that, as things stand, the numbers dictate the party has no route to government. As long as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael continue to rule out talking to Mary Lou McDonald about a coalition – there has been zero sign this week that their position will alter a jot – Sinn Féin is headed for opposition. The party insists it wants government, but a blind man can see the attraction of opposition. In this respect at least, the current politics looks like a win-win for Sinn Féin.

Unpalatable choices

Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, by contrast, fear they are in a lose-lose scenario. Lose if they go into a government, ceding the fertile ground of opposition to Sinn Féin, lose if they don’t and a second election leads to further seat losses.

There are those in both parties who realise that politics – and government, especially – often requires them to choose between two unpalatable alternatives. There are others who are slow in coming to that realisation.

the general expectation at Leinster House is that there will in the coming weeks be an attempt to put together a government of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Greens and some Independents

The leadership of Fianna Fáil is a bit farther down that particular road than Fine Gael is, though there are signs that informal back-channel contacts are beginning. There is not yet a joint management of the process. If it is to be successful, that will have to happen.

Nonetheless, the general expectation at Leinster House – among sources in all parties – is that there will be in the coming weeks an attempt to put together a government of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Greens and some Independents. There is much less agreement on whether it stands more than a decent chance of being successfully concluded. There are very significant barriers in the way to an agreement.

If it is to happen, there will be three stages to the achievement of an agreement on a new government. The first will be the acknowledgement that a deal can be done; the second will be conclusion of the deal; the third will be selling that deal to the parties and the public. We are not yet at stage one. The talks recommence next week.