Grand FG-FF alliance is coming - but it has to be done slowly
The Fianna Fáil grassroots will never support a minority Fine Gael government
Micheál Martin by a poster of Enda Kenny: the formation of governments is essentially a numbers game and the numbers point to an FG-FF coalition. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
Imagine the scene. The Fine Gael minister arrives in the chauffeur-driven Mercedes to make a major announcement, one that will bring benefit to his constituents. It is in a constituency where Fianna Fáil has recovered, and where Fine Gael is still a force despite a bad election nationally. Since the election Fianna Fáil has been keeping a Fine Gael minority government in power.
Having left the Mercedes, the minister is surrounded by journalists. In his speech later he talks of the benefits new growth under Fine Gael will bring. Long round of applause.
Meanwhile, the local Fianna Fáil TD, helping to keep the minister in power, stands to the side wondering what nightmare Micheál Martin has inflicted on the party to allow the Blueshirts, as Fine Gael would be termed locally, full access to “the Mercs and perks”.
The Fine Gael Minister remarks how Fianna Fáil’s patriotism, in putting the national interest first, should be recognised. The minister nods condescendingly towards the Fianna Fáil TD, who winces. Praise is cheap.
Such a scenario, if it occurs, would be the worst nightmare for Fianna Fáil, a party recovered since its near-death experience five years ago.
And what would happen nationally if any of the other opposition groups tabled a motion of no confidence in the Fine Gael minority government because of, say, the rise in homelessness? Would the Soldiers of Destiny march through the lobby to support the Blueshirts and the preservation of their Mercs and perks? Yes, and pigs will fly.
Parity of esteem
For these and other reasons Fianna Fáil will never support a minority Fine Gael government in return for a few policy fig-leaves. The Fianna Fáil grassroots would wear a coalition with Fine Gael, where its party had parity of esteem, much faster than an arrangement whereby it would prop up Fine Gael in return for effectively nothing.
Securing and holding power is very much part of the Fianna Fáil DNA and, if that has to be with the help of Fine Gael, so be it. The Civil War is gone from the folk memory.
And there is a golden deal for Fianna Fáil, one that would secure a share of the spoils of office, though the prediction is not shared by all.
Bar a banana skin, a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition is as inevitable as night follows day in the fullness of time. We are now witnessing time-wasting in Leinster House.
When the grand alliance finally emerges, it will not be known as a coalition. That would suggest Fianna Fáil was the junior partner and we all know what has happened to coalition junior partners.
It will be known as an alliance of equals, with the partners sharing the ministries and Martin as rotating taoiseach. Fianna Fáil’s finance spokesman Michael McGrath will be minister for finance or minister for public expenditure.
The formation of governments is essentially a numbers game and the numbers point to an FG-FF coalition, a minority government or a general election. Nobody wants an election, least of all TDs. And any party perceived to have caused another election, with the prospect of the repeat of a mind-numbing three-week campaign, could face a very hostile response from voters. As said, a minority government is out.
So the way is clear for a FF-FG government, the detail of which is likely to be hammered out in coming weeks. The process should accelerate after the Dáil meets on April 6th, and, as expected, fails again to elect a taoiseach.
When a deal is finally done Martin will go to a special Fianna Fáil ardfheis in a position of strength to have it ratified. He will be able to tell delegates the party always puts the national interest first and, while it was a difficult decision to go into government, the party was prepared to do so when others on the opposition benches were not.
He will speak of policy concessions – some fudge on water charges – and point out that in the partnership arrangement the parties will share the ministries and there will be a Fianna Fáil taoiseach for some of its term. There will be some dissent but he will be cheered to the rafters after all those weeks of hard work.
Nobody is taking Fianna Fáil’s new interest in Dáil reform seriously. In power from 1997 to 2011, the party downgraded the Dáil, with some ministers seeing it as an irritation more than anything else.
Yet Dáil reform is a useful stalling tactic for now, as is the insistence, from its unaccustomed place on the high moral ground, that it cannot break its promise to the Irish electorate and coalesce with Fine Gael.
All the major parties in Leinster House have engaged in U-turns on sharing power over the years. Fianna Fáil engaged in the most spectacular of all when it coalesced with the hated PDs in 1989. Agreeing to share power with Fine Gael, with all the concessions involved, would be a doddle by comparison.
But it has to be done slowly.