Best of frenemies: Why Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have stuck together
It suited Micheál Martin, and the national interest, to keep Leo Varadkar in power
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ambiguously ruled out any possibility of inviting Sinn Féin to form a government with Fine Gael. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
We are in a time of big things in politics. Those of us who lived through the decade and a half of post-cold war stability and prosperity had our complacent assumptions shattered by the financial crash of 2008 – and the grinding austerity that followed it.
But the political era that succeeded the age of austerity has been even more discordant still. Decades of consensus have been ripped up. There is no telling what will happen in the next 12 months. Never has politics been so urgent, so consequential.
In Ireland, 2018 was dominated by one of the age’s great dislocations: Brexit. Domestically, the agenda was dominated by the referendum on abortion.
In Leinster House, the necessary but uneasy co-operation between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil was maintained and extended by these best of political frenemies as national and party interests continued to coincide.
Their co-operation in providing a stable government at a time of unprecedented external turmoil – frequently scratchy though it may be – stands in vivid contrast to the destructive opportunism at Westminster.
Micheál Martin has aligned his own desire to avoid an immediate election with the national imperative for a settled government with an unassailable majority on the big questions. It was a deft piece of politics.
For the Independents in Government and outside, it was a year that was mixed at best. Several rural Independents made a long Dáil stand against a tightening of drink-driving penalties, the sort of Bill that civil servants give Ministers to keep them occupied and get them on the airwaves.
In this case, the Minister was another unhappy Independent, Minister for Transport Shane Ross. Ross finally succeeded in putting the road traffic Bill on the statute books but his cherished judicial appointments Bill – the standard in his crusade against what he calls “cronyism” – remains marooned in the Seanad, opposed by the judiciary and the legal profession, and unloved by Fine Gael.
It is difficult to generalise about the Independents and small parties outside Government, ranging as they do from small parties of the revolutionary left to rural Independents such as Mattie McGrath and the Healy-Raes, who made headlines with their opposition to the abortion legislation.
But taken as a group, polls suggest that support for Independents and small parties has halved since the last general election. If anything like that is repeated at the next general election, there will be a massacre of Independent TDs. This is beginning to dawn on many of them. For the Independents in Government, it means one thing: stay in as long as we can.
Sinn Féin changed its leader, bidding farewell to the towering figure of Gerry Adams and welcoming the woman he had groomed for years for the leadership. Her first year is proving difficult.
Mary Lou McDonald had signalled even before she became leader – unopposed, testament again to the party’s rigid if lately creaking culture of discipline – that she would change the party’s stance on coalition. Previously, the party had ruled out coalition with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil; now McDonald signalled she was open to becoming a minority partner in a government led by one of the big two. This would open up the possibility of being in government in Dublin and Belfast at the one time.
Any such administration in Dublin would have Irish unity as one of its chief priorities – for the first time since partition. But it requires either Micheál Martin or Leo Varadkar to invite McDonald into government. Either may yet do this, but during the year they have repeatedly and unambiguously ruled it out.
This does two things: it suggests that co-operation between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – in whatever guise – will be necessary to form governments in the future; and it maroons Sinn Féin in Opposition. The rebuff of Sinn Féin may well have been one of the most important things to happen politically this year.
The economy continued to roar, with corporation tax receipts from nervous multinationals flooding the exchequer. But the bulging public finances were spent in a way that alarmed the Government’s own independent budget watchdog, the Fiscal Advisory Council. It warned in a report that stung – and was meant to sting – that the Government was repeating the mistakes of the past by growing public spending on the back of unreliable windfall tax revenues.
When the revenues subside, the spending obligations remain. The council’s report speared Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe’s claims of fiscal prudence. With public pay claims backing up like aircraft queuing to land, Donohoe has a job on his hands to restore his “Prudent Paschal” tag. But it will take a fierce political fight to do it, inside the Cabinet and outside it.
As ever, failures by the State were a running theme. The long torment of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe was finally ended with his vindication by another tribunal and his retirement from the force, while for the first time an outsider, Drew Harris, was appointed to head the Garda Síochána.
The bungling of informing women about mistaken smear tests convulsed an already battered health system and prompted the early departure of Health Service Executive leader Tony O’Brien in the face of fierce criticism from some of the women affected, notably Vicky Phelan and the late Emma Mhic Mhathúna.
Minister for Health Simon Harris was protected by some degree by public and media approval of his campaigning on abortion. But with health spending again chronically over budget, that won’t last forever.
Michael D Higgins secured a second term as President of Ireland, after a campaign that saw him face questions about his promise seven years ago to serve only one term, his expenses and the general opacity of the Áras. But Michael D rose regally above the fray, relying on his extraordinary personal popularity and the shortcomings of the poor slate of candidates nominated to challenge him.
He won on the first count, though Peter Casey took nearly a quarter of the vote after a campaign that included negative comments about Travellers (to the consternation of many observers). Since the election Casey has faded back into obscurity.
At a time of anti-political rage in much of the West, Higgins’s election represented a significant endorsement of our way of doing politics. He is unmistakably a man of the left, who has spent a lifetime in politics pursuing – often impatiently – left-wing goals and causes. But he has done so exclusively though the medium of democratic, electoral politics.
He was perhaps happiest in Government, accepting compromises, wielding power, making changes, leaving a legacy. The electorate was offered unpolitical and anti-political candidates of various hues for the presidency; they chose – by a landslide – someone who was very much of the political system.
The other landslide of the year was in the abortion referendum – a moment and a campaign invested with such emotion and significance for individual people (on both sides) that most people will remember for many years where they were when the result was announced.
The campaign to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion had grown in civil society and grassroots groups for years, but took on a new and urgent character in recent years, especially since the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. The movement of Irish society was in a socially liberal direction; it had been for years, even before the same-sex marriage referendum of 2015 blared it loudly to the world.
This year, the political system took hold of that reforming energy and made it into constitutional change and legislation. Micheál Martin backed it, shocking many of his TDs but not, polling suggested, his party’s voters.
Simon Harris made the issue a personal crusade, identifying with it personally to such an extent that one repeal campaigner, celebrating on the day of the count in Dublin Castle, carried a “I fancy Simon Harris” placard. These were not, it is fair to say, normal times in politics.
Some left-wing politicians who had campaigned for years for abortion reform complained they were being written out of the script, and even seemed to resent the conversion of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. But the political establishment’s backing of change, its persuasion of doubters and waverers, was an important aspect of the change. That is how politics works.
In the end, the triumph of the repeal campaign was overwhelming. The legislation giving effect to the referendum was passed through the Oireachtas a fortnight before Christmas.
The year ended as it had begun – with Brexit as the great unknown hovering over the immediate future of the country and its politics.
The tough stance adopted by Ireland and the European Union – insisting on the backstop, and on their terms, too – allied to the floundering of the increasingly hapless Theresa May, has produced a situation fraught with risk and uncertainty. Compared with 12 months ago, a reversal of the Brexit decision is now more likely. But so is a disastrous crash-out Brexit.
The middle ground option – a softish Brexit that keeps the UK aligned to the EU for a period and maintains an open border in Ireland – is the one that has receded.
EU leaders have become increasingly impatient with May. She appears to have lost authority in her party, her parliament and her cabinet. As the year closes, no-deal preparations are the order of the day.
Brexit has brought a wrecking ball to the norms and equilibrium of British politics. If the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, it could yet have the same effect here.