Noel Whelan: The Government has been built on three fault lines
Politicians and officials speak of unease pending Brexit and the Trump presidency
‘The Dáil parties and Independent groupings, having lined up in Government and Opposition, are frozen in position for fear that any sudden movement may cause the whole thing to come to an end.’
In various chats and social encounters with a broad spectrum of politicians, political staffers and officials this month, I asked each to give a word or sentence which best summarises the state of Irish politics at the end of 2016.
Civil servants talked about how issues, big and small, are being ducked or deferred because the current political arrangements lack the political capacity to make or implement decisions.
They spoke of an uneasy quietness in the corridors of power, and of how everything seems to be in suspended animation pending the possible dual storms of Brexit and the Trump presidency hitting landfall for the Irish economy in 2017 and 2018.
Politicians, especially those most interested in getting things done, used adjectives like “frustrating”, “ inert” or “ low energy”.
The best analogy, however, came from a Leinster House adviser who described the current impasse as being the political equivalent of “the mannequin challenge”, referring to the recent viral video sensation where people remain frozen in action like mannequins while a moving camera films them.
The Dáil parties and various Independent groupings, having lined up in Government and Opposition, or in Fianna Fáil’s case straddling both, are frozen in position for fear that any sudden movement may cause the whole thing to come to an end.
I also asked each of them whether they thought there would be an election in 2017. Most thought there would not, although recognising that they may be too close to assess the risk.
Fault linesAssessing that possibility requires looking along the three fault lines on which the current makeshift Government has been built.
First, the Government is reliant on Fianna Fáil abstaining on legislation and support in confidence motions and budgetary matters if it is to survive.
The confidence and supply relationship was strained in the weeks before the recess, first by the Government’s use of a technical motion to stall a Fianna Fáil Bill on judicial appointments and, more dramatically, by Simon Coveney’s courageous insistence on pushing through his rent-restriction proposal.
However, it would take a lot for Fianna Fáil to trigger the collapse of the Government in 2017.
It sees itself as needing more time to enable further recovery in its support and is determined to be the biggest party after the next election.
In addition it has an interest in showing that a confidence and supply agreement between the two larger parties can endure because it may wish to rely on something similar during the next Dáil.
An early collapse of the current Government would undermine the credibility of offering the notion of such an arrangement in the next election.
Knuckled downSecond, in order to survive this Government also requires enough support from Independents to ensure it can pass measures with Fianna Fáil’s abstention.
Two of the Independent Ministers, Denis Naughton and Katherine Zappone, are comfortably embedded in Cabinet. Each of them has knuckled down and made some progress on key initiatives in their departments.
The relationship between Fine Gael and Shane Ross and his Independent Alliance is more volatile.
However, any terminal breakdown with Ross in 2017 would not necessarily mean that all five members of the Independent Alliance would break with the Government.
Fine Gael has been keeping communications open with others such as Stephen Donnelly, Michael Harty and Noel Grealish, who could be offered ministerial office and from whom support could be sought should Ross walk or be pushed out.
LeadershipThe third fault line under this Government is the unresolved Fine Gael leadership, and this may prove the most volatile.
I was involved in politics at a young enough age to remember the first Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition.
The relationship between Charles Haughey and Dessie O’Malley was surprisingly stable.
All changed, however, when Haughey resigned the Fianna Fáil leadership in January 1992, and was replaced by Albert Reynolds.
Reynolds was never a fan of the coalition. He had famously characterised it as a temporary little arrangement. From the moment he became leader we were all counting the days left for the coalition. It fell apart within nine months.
A similar dynamic could kick in if Enda Kenny goes.
The calming influence of Kenny would be gone, and a new Fine Gael leader could be more impetuous and impatient with the restraints imposed by reliance on Fianna Fáil and Independents.
A new Fine Gael leader may be tempted to break with the current inertia especially if he or she was to get an initial bounce in the polls.
The circumstances and outcome of a Fine Gael leadership change could exert a greater influence on the life span of the Government than either its relationship with Fianna Fáil or with those Independents supporting it.
Whether we have an election in 2017 may very much depend on the timing of Kenny’s going and the temperament of whoever succeeds him.