The Irish Times view on the confidence-and-supply deal: a time for cool heads
It is hard to see a compelling public interest in a pre-Brexit election
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar sought a two-year extension to the confidence-and-supply arrangement. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/EPA
The standoff between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over the future of the confidence and supply agreement, which will expire after budget day on October 9th, has rekindled the possibility of a general election before the end of the year, although it is difficult to see a compelling public interest in such a prospect.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, in a letter to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin last week, sought a two-year extension to the arrangement saying it was necessary in the interests of political stability during the Brexit negotiations. The Taoiseach expressed the view that a government could not function or work in the interests of the people if it was living on borrowed time and did not know from week to week or month to month how long it was likely to survive after the budget was passed.
Martin was equally clear in his response, holding to the position that he would not open talks on an extension of the agreement before the budget. He added that he would abide by the terms of the original deal and review its operation and the possibility of an extension at the end of the year.
There is a clear political logic behind the approach of both men, who are attempting to reconcile the best interests of their respective parties with their responsibility to provide the State with a workable government.
Despite its shortcomings, the confidence and supply arrangement has worked out better than many naysayers predicted back in 2016. It has provided a functioning Government even if it is severely restricted in the kind of legislation it can get through the Dáil. Both parties have had to deal with provocations from the other at various stages. Fine Gael has had the enormous benefits of office to cushion the compromises required, although the forced resignation of Frances Fitzgerald, Varadkar’s first tánaiste, was a price many in the party found difficult to stomach.
The change of leadership in Fine Gael in May of last year certainly changed the dynamic of the relationship between the two parties. Up to that point, Fianna Fáil had been ahead in the polls and there was a general assumption that it would become the biggest party at the next election and would take the lead role in the next government.
The accession of Varadkar to the Fine Gael leadership has altered the political landscape and Fine Gael has moved into a consistent opinion poll lead over its main rival since the change of leader. Varadkar is essentially putting it up to Fianna Fáil to either agree to a two-year extension of the current arrangement or accept the consequences of political instability.
It is a high-risk strategy for both leaders. Varadkar may lead Fine Gael to a better result in the next election but there is no guarantee he will be able to form a government, while Martin knows he has just one more shot at becoming Taoiseach. It is a time for cool heads all round.