Pat Leahy: Fine Gael needs to get real about coalition
Belief in party that it would do well whether talks succeed or not is probably over-optimistic
An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Minister for Business Heather Humphreys at a Fine Gael press conference in January. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The negotiators have their heads down and their tails up as they seek to thrash out a programme for government. Progress comes in fits and starts; but progress it is. They make a motley crew, to be sure – a preview of the government they might form.
Fianna Fáil no longer seeks to disguise its desperation to conclude an agreement. The party’s fate is on a knife-edge, poised between two startlingly different outcomes. It may shortly lead the next government or be left in an acute crisis if the talks collapse, the weakest by far of the three big parties.
The Greens can’t quite believe they are where they are – edging towards a coalition agreement with the apparently converted former climate dinosaurs across the table. It could still go wrong, of course. But while Eamon Ryan has never seemed the most calculating of politicians he has manoeuvred the two old parties and his own into a position he wants: the two are prepared to offer him most of what he wants, and his party might not be able to turn it down.
But in Fine Gael, right to the top, there is ambivalence. There is a school of thought in the party that believes it has an each-way bet on the current negotiations.
It holds that should the process succeed, Fine Gael will enter government for an unprecedented third term, a remarkable turnaround after a disastrous election, booking Leo Varadkar’s place in history.
Should the process collapse, however, Fine Gael will be equally well set. With its governing reputation restored by its management of the Covid-19 pandemic, it would be poised to storm back in a general election campaign, returning to lead either government or opposition, while Fianna Fáil falters and Micheál Martin’s successor is reduced to playing second fiddle to either Varadkar or Mary Lou McDonald in government.
Even allowing for the Fine Gael tendency to be rather too pleased with itself, this outlook is over-optimistic. It is also suggests an openness to playing politics as a game; a dangerous disposition. Politicians are entrusted the most serious decisions, with sway over people’s lives and livelihoods. A politics without empathy is empty, and eventually callous.
This Fine Gael view has led to a certain insouciance about the talks among some of the party’s leading figures, and outright opposition among some of the lower ranks. It is a mistake. Fine Gaelers are perfectly entitled to oppose the coalition, but they should do so from a position grounded in reality.
If the talks hit the rocks, the election won’t be now; it would be in September. You can’t have an election with the country shut down. And that would be a different election from the one Fine Gaelers imagine now.
Why? For three reasons.
Firstly, this is as good as it gets for the Government, and it is always better to depart when people are calling for you to stay. Fine Gaelers understandably delight in the resuscitation of the party’s fortunes since the general election. With some notable exceptions the Government has managed the crisis in a highly effective manner; remember it was only a few weeks ago when people were contemplating the fate of Italy and wondering when hospitals here would be overwhelmed. Many people at all levels of political, administrative and medical structures have performed heroically. But that phase is coming to an end.
And if you think that avoiding a disaster is a route to electoral popularity, let me introduce you to my friend Brexit. There were two overarching public attitudes to Brexit during the February election. One was the Government had done a great job in avoiding a hard Brexit. The second was: so what?
I suspect the expectation that Covid-19 could be Fine Gael’s electoral salvation would suffer the same fate. As was averred ad magnum nauseam around here at the time, elections are about the future, not the past.
The second reason is that – as we will start realising next week – reopening Ireland is going to be a lot trickier than closing her down. The Government has already made an almighty bags of the Leaving Cert, and the foostering about reopening the schools – still 3½ months away, for God’s sake – does not bode well for the future.
Sticking to the timetable for the reopening of social and commercial life requires a regime of testing and tracing that the HSE and associated bodies have not managed to put in place yet, and which – for all the brave and splendid work thus far – the organisation’s historic track record would not engender confidence it will achieve.
Thirdly, things will be economically a lot worse next September. Deficit spending at a time like this is both economically wise and socially necessary. But unlimited and open-ended deficit spending is not feasible because your lenders won’t put up with it. And if you have to borrow money you have to pay some attention to the wishes of your lenders as they are likely to be the conditions of the loan.
So for all those reasons it is probably in Fine Gael’s interest to form a government now. Can that government work? Can it even get off the blocks?
Who knows. The only thing one can say truthfully of the three parties involved is that while nobody is hugely enthused about it, nobody has a better idea. Or at least nobody has a better idea that is viable.
The truth is the three parties probably have to do a deal now and stick with it. The country needs a government; events – and the choices they have made – have conspired to leave it up them to provide it.
They will fail or walk away at their peril.