Eleven weeks after the general election, the pieces are starting to fall into place for the formation of a new government.
The publication of the Green Party’s 17 demands this week paves the way for negotiations with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, while the Independents – espying correctly that the Greens are now their competitors for power, policy and ministerial jobs – upped the ante by both seeking to accelerate the government formation process, and simultaneously trashing the Greens’ programme as unrealistic. You’ll hear more of this.
The Greens' 17 demands was evidence of two things: one, they will drive a hard bargain, and two, they are interested in a bargain
Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil has spent the past few weeks in a below-the-radar exercise to bring the party organisation on board for a deal with Fine Gael. Senior party figures have been spending hours on the phone with the soldiers of the legion of the rearguard. From what I hear about this closely-guarded process, the idea that the organisation is up in arms is just not true.
While there remains significant discomfort – and some outright opposition – at the idea of the “grand” (not so grand from some perspectives) coalition, there is a realisation in much of the Fianna Fáil organisation that the alternatives may be worse. I hear much the same from the trenchermen and women of Fine Gael.
Last week, the Tipperary Fianna Fáil organisation consulted its members by text and the results showed over two-thirds in favour of entering government with Fine Gael. And as Independent TD Mattie McGrath is fond of saying in the Dáil, where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows.
The joint op-ed from Fine Gael Senator John McGahon and Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne published on irishtimes.com yesterday is a fair summary of the majority position in both parties.
So what of the other side of the negotiating table?
The Greens’ 17 demands was evidence of two things: one, they will drive a hard bargain, and two, they are interested in a bargain.
As long as the party is willing to enter into negotiations in good faith and demonstrate some willingness to compromise – while maintaining its red lines – the odds are that a deal can be done, probably by mid-June.
People in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael all tell me they can live with most of the Greens’ requirements. A few hours after the announcement, I spoke to a senior figure in Fianna Fáil, and proceeded through the 17 demands: I got 12 okays, three trickys, and two difficults. Then I rang a senior Fine Gael source. The results were pretty much the same.
There is a conversation going on in the Greens, clearly. It is difficult and emotive, and there is no certainty which way it will ultimately come down. But it is clear that the momentum is now towards government. If the Greens didn’t want to be in government, the party would have put impossible requests into the document; they didn’t.
Both factions of the Greens are right, up to a point. It is certain that if they enter government, the Greens will be subject to an unrelenting campaign of vilification and (in some cases) hate for their decision. The online abuse will be something to behold. And they will not achieve everything they want; they will not even achieve everything that they negotiate into the programme for government. They will be disappointed with aspects of the eventual outcome. That is life in government. They will probably be monstered at the next general election.
But, on the other hand, staying out of government and so conspicuously shirking the responsibility of power at this moment of crisis would not be a consequence-free decision either. The Greens might find that many of their new supporters would be disgusted, and refuse to have anything to do with them in the future.
In other words, even if they don’t go in, the Greens may well get monstered at the next election anyway.
That opportunity won't last forever. While FF and FG would vastly prefer to have them on board, the Greens are not the only game in town
There is something uncomfortable that the Greens need to confront: polls during the election and the exit poll taken as voters left the polling stations demonstrated that Irish voters don’t care all that much about climate change as a political issue which governs their voting choices. This may be, depending on your point of view, lamentable; but it is true.
The idea that the Irish public are demanding their political leaders impose economic penalties on them to change their behaviour towards a more climate-friendly modus vivendi was not really a sustainable one after the election; after coronavirus, it is not one to be seriously entertained.
The bottom line is that if the Greens think they can wait for greater public support for climate measures, and a government more amenable to them, they are fooling themselves. Like every small party that wants to effect difficult social changes (this used to be Labour’s role) the Greens will have to convince the big parties and then play skilful politics in government. While they won’t get everything they want, they can certainly make this the greenest government in Irish history – greener than any viable alternative.
That opportunity won’t last forever. While FF and FG would vastly prefer to have them on board, the Greens are not the only game in town. The two big parties will adopt the Green agenda, or they won’t. The Independents are lining up, and getting impatient, knowing that the entry of the Greens diminishes their leverage and reduces to naught their chances of ministerial jobs.
Ultimately, the choice for the Greens is to deal with the world as it is, or to wait in the hope that the world changes. Both of these options are intellectually and morally respectable; only one makes sense in politics.