Noel Whelan: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael stuck with each other
Confidence and supply deal works and, apart from dramatics, neither party wants election
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: in 2016, he and his party membership settled for confidence and supply out of genuine national motives. Photograph: North West Newspix
At this stage Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are akin to two singletons who everyone knows are engaged in regular lovemaking but who go out of their way to profess their dislike of each other. Their confidence-and-supply relationship is a co-dependency.
Each of them resents it but at this stage it would hurt more to leave than to continue. They now say that they are going to revaluate and reassess their relationship but the rest of us know (and suspect they know) that they are stuck with each other, at least for another while.
There are three key factors shaping the context, timeline and likely outcome of the discussions about extending the confidence-and-supply agreement which are about to begin.
The first is that the original arrangement has lasted its full duration. It is important to acknowledge that. I was among those who argued at and after the 2016 election that a grand coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would have been in the national interest and indeed in the interest of the parties and that anything short of that would be unstable.
I remain of that view. Not only would a grand coalition have avoided uncertainties of the time we are currently enduring but also it could have had the potential to deliver truly transformative government for five years. A government as coherent in policy as our two main parties are, enjoying a strong majority and an abundance of resources could have focused on overhauling of our public services, particularly in the areas of health and housing. Instead of having the worst of both worlds as it does currently, Fianna Fáil would have shared real governmental power, probably with Micheál Martin as taoiseach for the last two years. The party could have directly shaped and implemented policy rather than merely exercising influence.
The frantic suggestions in 2016 that a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition would have given rise to a Sinn Féin surge still seem misplaced in my view. Notwithstanding the fact that Sinn Féin is the largest truly oppositional party and has changed its leader, Sinn Féin’s growth has been marginal in recent years. There are clearly other factors which operate as real impediments to Sinn Féin’s potential for growth.
National motivesIn 2016, Martin and his party membership settled instead for a confidence-and-supply arrangement. He did so out of genuine national motives. In doing so, he brought the country some political stability. Confidence and supply has avoided an early election, has secured the passage of three budgets, and defused the political timebomb that was water charges.
Some of us closer to the process bemoan how lethargic our legislature has become in this era of “new politics”. There is also understandable anger at the enduring housing and health failures. For most voters, however, the political stability delivered along with economic growth is an important achievement. The confidence-and-supply agreement contributed much to that.
The second key factor shaping these talks on a new agreement is the Varadkar factor. Enda Kenny’s weak position as Fine Gael leader after the 2016 election was one of the faultlines on which his second government was built. The change in leader to Varadkar solved that vulnerability.
Indeed, the fact that Fine Gael, currently Ireland’s largest political party and originally our most conservative party, made a smooth and successful generational shift to a leader with Varadkar’s youth and positioning is the most significant development in our political marketplace since the last election.
Varadkar’s strong polling since he became Taoiseach explains why Fine Gael is so cocky going into these talks. Micheál Martin repeatedly points out, however, that Fine Gael support was also overstated before the last election and that Varadkar will come unstuck. It is brave to gamble on such an outcome.
The third factor shaping the context of these talks is, of course, Brexit. One notion which gained some currency in Leinster House this week is that after the British government and the European Union have done a Brexit deal in October or November, Leo Varadkar would have both the time and the inclination to call an election before Christmas.
Such suggestions fail to have regard to the fact that even if a Brexit deal is done, such a deal would then have to undergo a lengthy and precarious Westminster parliamentary process. It would be the new year at the earliest before the existence of a Brexit deal could be truly assessed.
This time last year, the Leinster House bubble worked itself into a lather about the prospect of a pre-Christmas election. It didn’t happen then. It is even less likely to happen now.
Denis Naughten’s resignation yesterday was momentarily de-stabilising. The bottom line, however, is that Varadkar and Martin will avoid an election anytime soon.