Miriam Lord: Confidence and supply? More like Two Men and a GNU

If not for the sake of baby Brexit, he would be out of the relationship in a heartbeat

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: Brexit made him do it.  Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: Brexit made him do it. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

If it looks like a gnu, walks like a gnu and grunts like a gnu, it probably is a GNU. Or Government of National Unity, as some are calling it.

But it is no such thing, insist the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. It’s just the two biggest political parties in the country agreeing to act sensibly so one can steer the ship of State while Brexit buffets its bows and the other holds back and allow them to do it.

So even though it might have looked like a case of Two Men and a GNU when Micheál Martin and Simon Coveney separately addressed the media after the surprise announcement that Fianna Fáil will sustain Fine Gael in power for another year, they were both anxious not to label the decision as such. In fact, they didn’t want to talk much at all about their agreement.

Micheál couldn’t have been more vague had he explained the contents through the medium of interpretive dance.

Simon wasn’t much better. It was as if they were launching a new conceptual work where the experience is what you want it to be as opposed to an effort committed to outmoded paper and red-line parameters.

“We didn’t go after a whole series of asks,” said Micheál.

“They would like the facilitation of a certain pieces of legislation,” said Simon.

“A non-agreement,” said Brendan Howlin, the Labour leader. “It’s quite bizarre, to be honest with you.”

“I think it’s astonishing,” said Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin leader. “A piece of theatre.”

She thinks Fianna Fáil has run away from its responsibilities with this decision to act in the national interest while the Brexit storm rages.

But have no fear. “We will act as the lead party of Opposition,” she declared, in the final of four outings from party leaders during a packed hour on the plinth, and once the rain started, under the portico.

The immediate, disdainful reaction of McDonald and Howlin pointed up the fact that the Fianna Fáil leader has most to lose by going down the selfless route.

Then again, perhaps, outside of the political bubble, selflessness is still a quality to be admired and honoured. Micheál Martin will find out soon enough if looking out for the greater good is a smart move these cynical days.

If the Fianna Fáil leader and his party were making a sacrifice, the Tánaiste was falling over himself to thank them for it

In extending his confidence-and-supply agreement with Fine Gael until early 2020, he took his party’s power to force a general election off the table. This isn’t going down well with some members of his parliamentary party who can’t stomach another 12 months of keeping Fine Gael ensconced in Government Buildings.

Speech

When he made his mid-afternoon speech announcing the decision, 15 of his TDs sat with him. Some, such as Éamon Ó Cuív, John McGuinness, Mark MacSharry were unlikely to turn up. But where were all the others on such an important day?

Selflessness wasn’t seen by many around Leinster House as the reason for Martin’s sudden embracing of the confidence-and-supply arrangement again. They say he isn’t pushed about an election anytime soon because his party isn’t exactly smashing it in the opinion polls. This way, he can fend off the questions about why he isn’t champing at the bit and trying to collapse the Government.

As the rain fell on the plinth and deputy leader Dara Calleary quickly found an umbrella to hold over his boss’s head (he’ll need something more robust in the coming weeks to protect the leader’s neck when the FF Awkward Squad start squawking), Micheál made his case for acting outside the usual boundaries of political self-interest.

Brexit made him do it.

He said he was doing this for the greater good of the country in this, its hour of need. This was his sole “motivation”. Were it not for the need for the two main parties to stick together for the sake of baby Brexit, he would be out of the relationship in a heartbeat.

“We’re in no way fazed by the prospect of an election,” he insisted, as Dara’s arm gave out and Anne Rabbitte took over umbrella holding duties. “But this is not normal times . . .Brexit is the issue.”

As he was asked, time and again, to outline what concessions his party extracted in return for its continuing supporting of the Fine Gael minority administration, he retreated to his one and only reason – Brexit.

To him, not keeping the country on an even keel at this difficult time “would be quite reckless and add to that sense of anxiety, that sense of fear” among the public.

Sacrifice

As for the other stuff, running Ireland and the like, that continues to be up for discussion between the two parties.

If the Fianna Fáil leader and his party were making a sacrifice, the Tánaiste was falling over himself to thank them for it.

Taking shelter under the Leinster House portico as the rain ominously pelted down, Coveney could not express enough gratitude to Micheál for his “leadership” and his party for facilitating the continuation of the arrangement.

Now, because of this “mature” decision, the Government will be able to plan for what could be a “significant challenge” for the country next year and “we won’t have to be looking over our shoulder and wondering if there is going to be an election”.

The National Interest, if a GNU, was getting great attention. Simon was so pleased to see the two parties working together in the national interest to make sure Ireland is Brexit ready in March.

If you were inclined to be weepy at moments of political concord, this might have been the time to open the floodgates, what with the deluge of biblical proportion already happening in Kildare Street.

“We will make sure that we work together to protect this country” said Simon, signalling that Fine Gael wouldn’t do anything underhand by calling a sneaky election during this year of the gnu. It was very touching.

Until Mary Lou and Brendan came out and laughed at the arrangement.

The Labour party hadn’t been expected out for a briefing, but representatives stepped in smartly before the cameras before Sinn Féin arrived for their pre-planned appearance.

Six weeks of negotiations, spluttered Brendan, and “they have produced absolutely nothing!”

Nothing in terms of pledges in areas such as housing and heath, instead it was a case of “here’s the blank cheque and carry on regardless.”

Mary Lou carried on the Much Ado About Nothing theme with gusto. “Nothing by the way of additionalities,” she cried. As she saw it, Micheál Martin was trying to evade his political responsibilities and using Theresa May’s Brexit difficulties to give him cover.

“It’s farcical.”

So what is it to be?

Will doing the right thing do for Micheál? Or will it win him respect? Will he be able to blackmail Fine Gael into concessions because of the sacrifice he made for them to continue on?

And how did Simon Coveney restrain himself from high-fiving Regina Doherty under the portico as his party put 12 more months in government in their back pocket?

Just as well they didn’t send out Leo.

He was up in his office, maybe humming that old nonsense song.

“I’m a G-NU. How do you do?”

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