Talk is cheap as all wait to see what happens next

The big two are going through the motions in side talks but the numbers do not add up

Privately, Fianna Fáil is confident it could emerge the largest party from a subsequent election. Then it might talk about coalition alright. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Privately, Fianna Fáil is confident it could emerge the largest party from a subsequent election. Then it might talk about coalition alright. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

“What’s going to happen?”

The question is on the lips of everyone in and around Leinster House. TDs new and old, of all parties and none, staffers, soon to be redundant advisers, journalists . . . all are asking the same thing.

The campaign and the counts of the general election have been parsed, digested, analysed. The result is much harder to understand: what exactly is it that the Irish people want?

The next constitutional step – the election of a taoiseach and the nomination of ministers – is blocked for now by the inconclusive Dáil numbers returned. Something has to change or no new government will be possible in the medium term. There will certainly be no new taoiseach elected tomorrow. So what’s going to happen?

Almost everything that has happened in recent days is meaningless and diversionary. For sure, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are listening intently to the Independents and small party groups that they have met. They are going through the motions of treating their policy proposals and statements of principle and priority issues with due seriousness.

According to those familiar with the proceedings – and despite what the Independents think – there is little actual substance to the discussions. But in a deeply querulous political atmosphere, where nobody knows what’s going to happen next, they give everyone something to do.

No majority

Contacts with the Independents might have mattered if the two big parties had a mathematical prospect of a majority with Independent support, sources in both big parties acknowledge. But they haven’t. Fianna Fáil has 44 seats; Fine Gael 50. A bare majority in the Dáil is 79. In each case, the gap is too big.

“It’s a process,” says a source who has been involved in several meetings, “but it’s a mock process.” That has its place, but it won’t last for long.

Tomorrow’s inconclusive Dáil proceedings will put an end to this phase of the post- election positioning. It will be followed in the coming weeks by a delicate dance between the two old rivals.

The first move is already emerging: Enda Kenny is letting it be known that he is willing to talk to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin about co-operation and, possibly, coalition between their two parties. That will be tentative at first, and then more overt in the coming days.

This is designed to turn the tables on Martin, a sort of political judo. Many in Fianna Fáil insist their party “won” the general election. Kenny now seeks to confront Martin with the responsibility that comes with such a “victory”. Expect much talk about the importance of “stability”.

Crucially, Kenny’s move is made in the expectation that Fianna Fáil will not, and cannot, accept it for now. And should Martin stick to that refusal, Kenny will seek to apportion blame for another election on to Fianna Fáil by painting Martin as putting party before country.

Diversionary tactics

People close to him say Martin’s judgment is that it is not in Fianna Fáil’s interests to join a government with Kenny. That is precisely, he reasons, what he spent the general election trying to prevent.

But the blunt truth about Martin’s position is that even if he did want to cut a deal for a grand coalition with Kenny, he could not currently get such an arrangement through his parliamentary party. And even if he forced it through there, he could not secure the agreement of a special ardfheis that the party rules require. Sources at all levels of Fianna Fáil are absolutely adamant on this latter point.

Of course, the context for this may be changed by weeks and months of continued political uncertainty. But it has not changed since the election, and it shows no sign of changing at present.

Fianna Fáil’s preferred outcome is the construction of a minority Fine Gael-led coalition with Fianna Fáil’s tacit support from opposition. That would leave Kenny in office (another plus for Fianna Fáil, as far as the party is concerned) but only until such time as it chooses to pull the plug.

“They’re like sharks,” grimaces one senior Government source. “They can smell blood in the water.”

Privately, Fianna Fáil is confident it could emerge the largest party from a subsequent election. Then it might talk about coalition alright.

However, the prospect of a minority Fine Gael-led government is rubbished by a number of the party’s Ministers. “A lot of us would be very, very worried about that prospect,” said one Cabinet member.

Kenny, like Martin, does not have an entirely free hand either.