Only two ways to avoid an election: a deal or a resignation
FG and FF have little more than a day left to work out a deal to save this Government
Unless a solution to the current political impasse is found within the next 24 hours or so, there will be a general election before Christmas, probably on December 19th or 20th.
Many people will regard it as idiotic; others as deeply irresponsible. But unless a solution is found on Monday or early Tuesday, that’s what will happen.
Our democracy operates according to rules. One of them – for good reasons – is that a government which loses the confidence of the Dáil must call an election. A motion of no confidence in a minister is in practical political terms the same as a motion of no confidence in the government: the first power exercised by every taoiseach after his election by the Dáil is to pick his own ministers. If that power is constrained by a vote of TDs, then his authority has been withdrawn by the Dáil.
Hopes in some quarters that the President would refuse a dissolution of the Dáil fly in the face of the accepted constitutional wisdom that this power – never utilised before – could only be exercised if there was a clear alternative government in the Dáil which could command a majority. That is not the case. The President will not save the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil from the consequences of their continuing disagreement.
No, there are only two possible solutions. One is that the two party leaders reach an agreement that enables Fianna Fáil to withdraw its motion of no confidence in the Tánaiste.
Given this would require Micheál Martin to drop his demand for Frances Fitzgerald’s resignation, Fianna Fáil would surely require considerable concessions from Fine Gael in return. Some ideas being floated over the weekend included an agreement to amend the terms of reference of the Charleton tribunal to allow it to examine the events which led to the current controversy in January, perhaps with specific reference to Fitzgerald, and report soon afterwards.
Senior Fine Gael sources are not averse to such a move, including, it is thought, Fitzgerald herself, though she has made no public comment.
This would also require Fine Gael to acknowledge that there are legitimate questions about Fitzgerald’s handling of the affair. This would mean abandoning its insistence that Fitzgerald had done absolutely nothing wrong.
A political judgment about her culpability for any acts or omissions could then be postponed for a few months until the judge reported. This would be a huge climbdown for Fianna Fáil, but one it could perhaps live with, especially if combined by a statement by Fitzgerald to the Dáil which acknowledged Fianna Fáil’s reasonable concerns.
It might not do Martin any favours with his sometimes restive parliamentary party, but he might be thanked by voters for sparing them an election at a time when politicians in all parties say it is not in the country’s interests.
The prospects for such agreement remain highly uncertain, however. The two leaders met again on Sunday night, their third encounter in as many days. A breakthrough seems as far apart as ever, with both sides sticking to their positions – in public, anyway.
The second solution is the resignation of Fitzgerald from the Government. The Taoiseach has made it completely clear that he will not ask her to step down, and has even stressed that nothing in his words should be interpreted as distancing himself from her, or seeking to put any pressure on her to resign. Though that is not a view shared by all Fine Gaelers in private.
Fitzgerald herself remains determined that she has done nothing wrong and it would be enormously unjust – not to mention a violation of fair procedures and natural justice – for anyone to seek her resignation. These, incidentally, are exactly the same arguments that Alan Shatter made about the way he was dumped from government in 2014, arguments that both Leo Varadkar and Fitzgerald more or less shrugged at.
Until he became a thorn in their side, people in the last government believed that Shatter was indeed harshly treated – but that he had to accept the reality that political accountability is delivered in a more rough and ready manner than legal and constitutional protections and procedures dictate in other forums.
More prosaically, they also thought that sometimes a minister has to go to save a government.
In the absence of an agreement between Martin and Varadkar in the coming hours, that reality will also be confronted by Fitzgerald. The normal rules of politics would suggest that if it reaches that point, she would resign to save the Government.
But both herself and her leader insist not. “Leo is not looking at this through the usual political lens,” said one very high-ranking Fine Gaeler on Sunday night.
If that is what happens, the last act of the new politics will have been novel indeed.