Cliff Taylor: The numbers to watch as count drama plays out

Coming days will be a poker game with nobody willing to show their cards

As you read this , the tallies will be coming in and the first indications of whether the opinion polls got it right will be emerging. Depending on what time of the day it is, you may be hearing estimates of first count percentages. This will tell a lot. Whatever happens, after the votes are counted we are going to be into a very interesting period. Here are the key numbers to watch over the weekend.


The number needed to form a Dáil majority following the election of a Ceann Comhairle. Realistically any new government would like to have a few seats to spare.


The bare minimum number of seats that Fine Gael and Labour would realistically need to exceed if they were to have a chance of forming a new government.

There are only so many independents, or smaller groups who could be roped in. There would be a big difference, for example, between Fine Gael and Labour getting, say 65-66 seats – which would make government formation near-impossible – and getting 72-73 seats, which could mean it was “ on”. A “good” Independent in this context, as one former minister put it to me, is one prepared to “get bought and stay bought”. In other words, they agree to some booty for their locality – a road, a school, broadband, whatever – and in return agree to support the government. All in the interest of national stability, of course. And no, it wouldn’t be pretty. Something more policy-oriented would be needed to pull in other groupings, such as the Social Democrats.



Labour is going to lose a host of seats. Some believe there is a minimum number that would give it enough clout to participate in a new government. Anything below a dozen would leave it with a very weak hand. But he alternative would be to become a smaller party in opposition, arguably a worse position . A lot may depend on whether Labour leader Joan Burton retains her seat . Either way, after losing so many deputies, the party may take some time to reorganise and agree its strategy.


The number of days between the election and the next time the Dáil sits, March 10th. Everyone would be surprised if a taoiseach is elected on this occasion. In fact, the talking could continue for quite some time, unless Fine Gael and Labour do better than the polls indicated and have the numbers – or close to them – together. The country won’t fall apart during negotiations. If no taoiseach is elected on March 10th, then the current administration will remain on, in effect on a caretaker basis. In real terms, the civil service will be running the country. This could go on for quite some time, quite possibly past Easter. Unless Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin ditch their objection to getting together, Fine Gael as the biggest party will be expected to take the lead on the dancefloor.

48 hours

The length of time it is likely to take various business leaders and worthies, in the event of a hung Dáil, to step forward to call on Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to get together “in the national interest” or “in the interest of Ireland Inc”.

3 to 4 weeks

The length of time that many people believe, if the numbers so dictate, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will dance around each other before coming together. But don’t bank on it. Despite the bookies’ odds, political insiders feel a full coalition would face huge hurdles. The parties really don’t like each other. There is no chemistry between the two leaders – and that’s putting it gently. And there are few personal connections across the party lines of a kind that helped clear the way for earlier coalitions, for example Fianna Fáil with the Progressive Democrats and later Labour.

Fianna Fáil would fear its fate in coalition, with Sinn Féin leading the opposition and building itself up for the next election. Senior party figures from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have quickly shot down any suggestion from TDs during the election campaign that such an arrangement might follow the vote. And Micheál Martin would have to get it past a party ardfheis, which would be difficult.

A step short of a grand coalition would be Fianna Fáil agreement that it would allow a minority Fine Gael administration to be formed. This would involve it agreeing to abstain on the election of a taoiseach and subsequent motions of confidence in the government – for as long as it supported the overall direction of policy. This so-called “confidence and supply” arrangement would stop Fianna Fáil from being pulled into coalition, though it would also miss out on the “Mercs and perks” of government. It will be a defining call for Micheál Martin, if it comes to it.


This is the rate Ireland is charged for 10-year borrowing on the bond market. There seems no reason for immediate market nerves, unless there is a threat of a really prolonged period of instability, or signs that a new government would take a markedly new policy direction. The bigger threat might be if we were seen to not have a stable government when new problems hit, for example a vote in favour of Brexit, which would lead to questioning of Ireland’s policy direction.


The credibility that should be attached to any comment by a party leader after the results on what might or might not happen next. It will be a poker game, after all, and nobody will want to show their cards.