Pat Leahy: Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin to put cards on table

Analysis: Endgame over terms for formation of new government coming into sight

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: “The personal relationship between Kenny and Martin is not good; they do not get on.” Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: “The personal relationship between Kenny and Martin is not good; they do not get on.” Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

Today will see the ending of the current phony war and the beginning of the final, decisive phase.

Sometime after the Dáil fails to elect a taoiseach, a sleeve will be tugged, a quiet word will be had, a call made.

The meeting between the leaders of the two largest parties which everyone has been anticipating since votes were counted will finally be arranged. And so the final chapter to form a government will begin.

At least this phase will be conclusive. If the two parties can do a deal, there will be a government; if they cannot agree, there will be a general election.

The initial conversation between Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin will be important, but it is unlikely they will deal with major policy matters. Instead that job will be delegated to those negotiating.

Most likely, it will be the same people who have talked interminably to Independent TDs in recent days and weeks.

The talks will have to get over three initial hurdles.

The personal relationship between Kenny and Martin is not good; they do not get on. Though both are naturally good-humoured, they have clashed not just in the Dáil (where it is to be expected) but in also private.

The lack of trust is currently obvious. Both parties constantly brief against the other, though that is perhaps to be expected. What they will need to show one another is that they can be frank, discreet and constructive.

This will make things duller for those on the outside, but it is essential for success. Third, they will have to figure out what exactly the talks are for. That is at once simple and quite complicated.

‘Confidence and supply’

What will be discussed is not a coalition or even a shared programme, but the terms under which Fianna Fáil might enter into a “confidence and supply” arrangement with a Fine Gael-led minority government.

Under such an arrangement, Fianna Fáil would consent to the formation of government (probably by abstaining on the vote for taoiseach) and pledge to either support it or, more likely, not to oppose it on votes of confidence or (money) supply.

The latter means basically the budget and finance and social welfare Bills.

Of course there will be a price. The first and most obvious hurdle is Irish Water; both parties have been retreating behind their rhetorical barricades in recent days. But negotiations are about coming out from behind those barriers.

More unpredictable is how much Fianna Fáil will want to influence the new government’s fiscal and economic policy.

Martin thundered during the election campaign about how Fine Gael was a right-wing party. Surely he couldn’t support a “right-wing” budget?

Spending increases

But with its pledge that the spending/tax ratio in the next budget had lurched to 90/10 ratio in favour of spending increases, Fine Gael has already taken a jump towards Martin’s position.

Nonetheless, this delicate tightrope – opposing the government but not on everything; facilitating policies, but not having responsibility for them – is one that the Fianna Fáil leader will have to walk if this is to work.

If it can be agreed, it will be sealed between the two men in the coming weeks, and probably set out in a brief written agreement.

As is often is the case in politics, neither party leader enjoys the unanimous backing of his colleagues. Both will be keeping half an eye on what is happening behind their backs.

The general election result signalled the beginning of the end for Kenny’s leadership. Everyone in Fine Gael knows this; he knows it himself. There is no overt pressure on him now, but there will be.

Privately, Fine Gael Ministers are acutely aware there may come a point when Kenny’s interests and those of Fine Gael diverge.

In other words, they want a deal that will return Fine Gael to government (under Kenny’s leadership, for now) but not at any price.

“We shouldn’t agree to a bad deal just to save Enda,” says one Minister.

So Kenny will have to show that any arrangement with Fianna Fáil is in Fine Gael’s interests. But Martin also has his sceptics and dissenters to manage. Several of his TDs, including some of the most prominent, believe he should consider a coalition with Fine Gael. It’s going to happen eventually anyway, they reason – so why not just get on with it?

To this must be added the natural disinclination of TDs who have recently won their seats to risk them in a second election. Martin cannot ignore their views, or their ability to influence the national debate.

But Martin’s judgment is that it is not in Fianna Fáil’s interests now to join a government and his organisation is vociferously against it.

That might change, of course, but the mood of the grassroots has, if anything, hardened on this point since polling day.

As of last night, there had been no contact between the two men since last week, and none among their respective staffs to prepare the way for talks.

There is not, to put it mildly, much agreement on what is going to happen, or when, or even where.

But the wary circling of each other is coming to an end.