Politics: Countdown to an election

It is difficult to see how an election can be avoided once current arrangement runs out

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. The change of leader by Fine Gael last summer marked a new and more contentious phase in the arrangement.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. The change of leader by Fine Gael last summer marked a new and more contentious phase in the arrangement.

 

The main political parties are preparing themselves for a possible general election later this year when the confidence and supply arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil runs out. That arrangement will expire once the budget in October is voted on by the Dáil and while there is a review mechanism to enable it to be extended, all the indications are that neither party is particularly anxious to prolong the deal.

The confidence and supply agreement, negotiated after the February 2016 general election stalemate, is a unique experiment in Irish politics and it has proved to be a qualified success. It averted political chaos by providing a mechanism for the formation of a government which has gone on to function reasonably well, even though it has nowhere near a majority in the Dáil.

The crucial ability to get its budgets passed has ensured that the economic recovery which got under way during the lifetime of the last government has gathered pace and is now delivering growth and improved living standards for the people of the country. Given the range of external threats to the Irish economy, particularly Brexit, it was vital that a stable government with the ability to take coherent positions on issues of vital national importance was put in place.

Fine Gael and the Independents who agreed a programme for government deserve credit for the achievement. So too does the main Opposition party Fianna Fáil which has honoured the deal, despite the occasional temptation to pull the plug for party advantage. The downside of the arrangement is that the Government has not been able to take decisive action in areas not covered by the confidence and supply agreement. That has resulted in a dearth of legislation going through the Dáil, as there is no guarantee that contentious Bills will be passed. The Government has also frequently lost votes on private members’ motions – including another yesterday – and while these have no legislative impact they have eroded some of its authority.

The change of leader by Fine Gael last summer marked a new and more contentious phase in the arrangement with new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar frequently clashing with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. That brought the country dangerously close to a general election just before Christmas and it was only avoided by the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald as tánaiste and minister for justice. That experience has made the two parties highly suspicious of each other so it is difficult to see how an election can be avoided once the confidence and supply arrangement runs out.

There are some important items that will have to be dealt with before that happens, most significantly the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Once that is out of the way at the end of May, an election is possible at any time but is unlikely to take place before the autumn.

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