Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil bitten after taking Greens for granted
Decision by Greens not to enter talks means leverage of Independent TDs has skyrocketed
Eamon Ryan’s new TDs met on Wednesday and decided not to enter exclusive discussions with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael about putting a coalition government together. Photograph: Tom Honan
Well, that didn’t last long. The announcement by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on Tuesday night was intended to open the door to a government – comprised not just of the two old rivals but also the Green Party and independent TDs – to be put together as soon as possible, probably by Easter.
But as was entirely predictable, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil took the Greens for granted.
In their defence, it seems the Green Party leader Eamon Ryan did so as well.
The new Green TDs had other ideas. The escalating coronavirus crisis required a national government, they believed
Ryan’s new TDs met on Wednesday and decided not to enter exclusive discussions with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael about putting a coalition government together, but instead to call for the suspension of talks on “a majority government” and to instead “work towards forming a crisis national government to be reviewed in three months”.
Despite the apparent formality of who should talk to whom about coalition, the truth is that politicians talk to one another all the time around Leinster House and there were several back channel contacts between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green leader in recent weeks. When the big two made their announcement, they expected the Greens to row in.
But the new Green TDs had other ideas. The escalating coronavirus crisis required a national government, they believed. It should be put together immediately, and reviewed after three months, they said.
It should be constructed by means of the d’Hondt formula used in Stormont, some said. Or like the Swiss model. Others weren’t quite sure what the Swiss model was, but were duly enlightened by an explanation from new Dún Laoghaire TD Ossian Smyth.
But whatever model they want, the Greens are out of the reckoning for government for now. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are not interested in a national government; nor, actually, is Sinn Féin. Mary Lou McDonald ruled it out before the Greens’ declaration on Wednesday.
More experienced heads around Leinster House and in the civil service view the idea with something approaching horror – a recipe for inaction, rather than swift and decisive action.
The rationale for a national government is that it can take difficult decisions quickly. But there is little evidence that it would do this – beyond the example of the British government in the second world war, repeatedly cited by its proponents, but which is of questionable comparability to the current situation.
The outgoing government – which required cross party agreement for many measures and the consent of a parliament in which it did not have a majority – was hardly a model of executive efficiency. In the end it found itself barely able to do anything.
The involvement of Independent TDs has now become essential, not just desirable. They will adjust the price for their support accordingly
So what happens now?
Senior figures in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil discussed the Greens’ move on Wednesday evening and – after much throwing their eyes up to heaven, as you might expect – resolved to go ahead with their government formation talks on Thursday.
Several senior figures now believe that the Greens have to be written out of the process completely, though some Green sources say that the party may yet return to the talks table.
They will only be welcome if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil believe they are serious about a long-term government deal, and can be relied upon to conclude and abide by a deal. That is not their view at present.
The happiest people in Leinster House on Wednesday evening were the Independents, whose leverage has rocketed with the Greens’ exit from the process.
Their involvement has now become essential, not just desirable. They will adjust the price for their support accordingly.