Noel Whelan: Why May 24th next year could be a crucial day in Irish politics

Ireland’s electoral timeline now in abeyance pending outcome of current British crisis

Leinster House. Micheál Martin has offered the Taoiseach  immunity against a general election until after Brexit

Leinster House. Micheál Martin has offered the Taoiseach immunity against a general election until after Brexit

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Article 13.2 of the Constitution provides that “Dáil Éireann shall be summoned and dissolved by the President on the advice of the Taoiseach”.

The words themselves suggest that, provided a taoiseach has not lost the confidence of the Dáil, he or she alone can decide when a general election will be held.

The reality, of course, is always more complicated. Down through the years even those taoisigh who led single-party governments made the decision with close colleagues.

Those taoisigh who headed up coalition governments have had to consult with the leader of the minor government party.

The political reality is that neither Varadkar nor Martin could call an election in the coming months

Never before, however, has the leader of the Opposition had such influence on the timing of an election as Micheál Martin now has.

Leo Varadkar still has the power to call an election at any time, and if he does Martin can’t stop him. Yet the current Dáil arithmetic is such that Martin himself could also bring about an election by having his TDs vote no confidence in Varadkar’s Government.

As they wind down towards the Christmas recess, the questions on the minds of all in and around politics is what the thinking of these two men may be on the likely date of the next election.

The term of the current Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil confidence and supply agreement runs out in 24 days. No new deal between the two parties has been or will be negotiated before then. The two negotiation teams are merely treading water. They are actively doing nothing.

They gather occasionally to talk about how and whether the last deal was implemented, and to listen to lengthy briefings from officials on key policy areas. They and their party leaders are playing for time. They will go through the motions of negotiations well into the new year.

Dim view

The political reality is that neither Varadkar nor Martin could call an election in the coming months. Ireland’s electoral timeline is in abeyance pending the working out of the current crisis in British politics.

Martin has offered Varadkar immunity against an election until after Brexit. Varadkar knows himself that the electorate, who are largely content with the current Government arrangements, would take a dim view if he called an election while the Brexit uncertainty endures.

A popular and political consensus has now emerged that using three or four weeks of the 14 weeks between now and the scheduled Brexit date to indulge in a general election here would be reckless.

With so much at stake for Ireland, all our political focus needs to be on addressing the Brexit fallout.

The ultimate Brexit outcome is also likely to affect Varadkar’s standing going into that election. As of now the Taoiseach benefits politically from the Government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations.

That, however, could change if the Government ends up having to deal with a hard, disorganised, economically disruptive Brexit. The risk of this was once notional, but it is now an increasingly likely scenario.

The Government can only survive beyond the end of May if Martin manages to persuade his party to extend the confidence and supply arrangement

Then the question arises as to whether and when an election might happen after the Brexit crisis is resolved. In the words of one Fine Gael TD, all the emphasis on not having an election until after Brexit of itself creates a momentum and a popular expectation that we will have an election as soon as Brexit is resolved.

If Brexit happens on some negotiated basis at the end of March, or the Brexit crisis abates by an adjournment of the exit date –whether for a second referendum or otherwise – then a window would open in April or thereabouts for Varadkar or Martin to decide to call an election.

Complication

However, there is then a further complication. EU law and our Constitution require that we must have local and European elections at the end of May. The date for these two elections has been fixed for Friday, May 24th, 2019. It would be strange to have a general election late in April or early in May only to have these other elections three or four weeks later.

This opens a possibility that Dáil, local and European elections could be held on the same day.

There is precedent from 1989 of holding Dáil and European elections together. Contesting local, Dáil and European contests on the same day would prove challenging for the political parties, but it would prove a lot less challenging for larger parties, thereby giving them a further edge over the smaller parties and Independents.

Predicting the future is impossible, but as of now, May 24th, 2019, is the page I have marked in my diary as the first realistically possible date for the next election.

The Government can only survive beyond the end of May if Martin manages to persuade his party to extend the confidence and supply arrangement for longer. Ultimately it’s the leader of the Opposition rather than the Taoiseach who is likely to decide the date of the next election.

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