Government formation talks: Eamon Ryan faces toughest internal battle

All three parties have entrenched opposition to any deal, but Ryan needs two-thirds in vote

If there is to be three-party coalition formed in the coming weeks, Eamon Ryan will have to overcome significant and vocal opposition within his own party to both the idea of entering government at all with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and to the specifics of any agreement. But Ryan is not the only one with a battle on his hands – there is significant opposition to a coalition in all of the parties.

It is Ryan who faces the toughest battle, though, and much will depend on the attitude of his deputy leader, Catherine Martin. She was opposed to entering talks on a programme for government at all, despite which she was later appointed to head up the negotiating team. Martin is, of course, challenging Ryan for the leadership of the party, though that contest will take place after the conclusion – one way or another – of the current negotiations.

Martin has said she will not campaign until the question of government formation is settled. But that is not really how politics works. Certainly, some of her supporters leaped on Ryan’s ill-advised use of the word “n****r” in the Dáil yesterday as a reason he should no longer be leader. Not even Ryan’s most bitter opponents would accuse him of being a racist, but the incident will hardly help him with the Green membership.

Catherine Martin has told Green colleagues that she will evaluate the full programme once it is agreed and decide whether to support it

Martin needs 50 per cent plus one in the leadership election. But Ryan needs two-thirds of the vote to pass any programme for government; the corollary of that, of course, is that his opponents need only 34 per cent to defeat him and his programme. It is hard to see how he could survive such a defeat. The support – or opposition – of Martin will be crucial. She has told Green colleagues that she will evaluate the full programme once it is agreed and decide whether to support it.


Fianna Fáil opposition

Within Fianna Fáil, which like the Greens must put any deal to its members but only requires a simple majority, there will be opposition to a deal at all levels of the party. In the parliamentary party, Éamon Ó Cuív is expected to oppose coalition with Fine Gael and favour opening discussions with Sinn Féin, while a number of councillors have also expressed their opposition, with some favouring a national government.

Were the deal to be rejected by the Fianna Fáil membership, that would certainly be the end of Micheál Martin's leadership

There is intense speculation about the likely position of Dublin TD Jim O’Callaghan, who was surprisingly omitted from the party’s negotiating team. O’Callaghan was once close to party leader Micheál Martin, but now he is touted as a possible replacement as party leader should the negotiations with the Greens collapse, or the deal fail to be ratified.

Martin’s allies, including those on the negotiating team, have been quietly seeking – through online meetings and working the phones – in recent weeks to persuade the organisation to accept any deal. They have been given to understand that their chances of ministerial office would not be hurt by delivering votes in favour of government in their constituencies, though they could probably have worked that out for themselves. Were the deal to be rejected by the Fianna Fáil membership, that would certainly be the end of Martin’s leadership. It is generally assumed in Leinster House that this is Martin’s last chance to be taoiseach.

Varadkar’s task

With an electoral college system in place in Fine Gael to vote on any agreement, Leo Varadkar probably has the easiest job in securing his party’s approval for any deal that is concluded, but there are several of his Ministers who are unconvinced about the coalition plan. Some believe Fine Gael would recover many of the seats it lost in February at the expense of Fianna Fáil and the Greens if there were a second general election; others believe the party should seek a spell in opposition, in the hope of forcing Fianna Fáil – probably after dumping its leader – to do a deal with Sinn Féin. Party insiders believe that Varadkar flirted with this idea for a while but is now committed to making a coalition agreement.

They can all see that if the intended deal falls apart, Fine Gael will be left in the strongest position of the three parties. Nevertheless, it is overwhelmingly likely that if a deal is agreed, Fine Gael will ratify it. Of course, that doesn’t matter unless the other two parties do the same.