Stephen Collins: FG and FF will struggle to create stable majority

Momentous decisions already made to fight Covid-19 but another coalition partner vital

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: the fact he and his Ministers have shown great leadership skills over Covid-19 has bought them time but they cannot continue indefinitely.  Photograph:  Nick Bradshaw

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: the fact he and his Ministers have shown great leadership skills over Covid-19 has bought them time but they cannot continue indefinitely. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

The good news on the political front is that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have finally got down to the serious business of putting a new government together. The bad news is that unless they are joined by at least one other significant party or group, that government is unlikely to last very long.

The decision of the Greens to line up with Sinn Féin and the hard left rather than join the traditional governing parties in putting a stable administration in place at a critical time in the country’s history appears to be irrevocable. It means Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will have to attract another partner, or partners, if the country is to avoid a second election later this year when the Covid-19 crisis has passed.

The decision of the Greens to opt out of government involving Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil comes from a combination of ideology and electoral self-interest. The party may have a cuddly image among suburbanites worried about the future of the planet but it has a radical policy programme on tax and income redistribution that is well to the left of Sinn Féin and one on agriculture that would end the Irish food industry as we know it.

Decisions on government formation cannot be postponed much longer. There are questions about the democratic legitimacy of a government that has lost its mandate

There is also a strong element of political self-interest as one of the features of the recent election was the massive transfers Green candidates got from Sinn Féin and the various Trotskyist factions. 

Without those transfers, it would not have won 12 seats. Some of the party’s TDs are acutely aware of that and it was another reason they rejected the widely held assumption they would enter coalition with mainstream parties to influence the agenda on climate change.

Lost mandate

One of the reasons Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been so slow to get down to serious talks on a programme for government is the view in both parties that any other potential coalition partner would have to be included from the beginning rather than being presented with a fait accompli.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, decisions on government formation cannot be postponed for much longer. For a start there are questions about the democratic legitimacy of a government that has lost its mandate. The fact the Taoiseach and his Ministers have shown great leadership skills in the face of the Covid-19 emergency has bought them some time but they cannot continue indefinitely.

There is also an important technical issue. When the current Seanad ceases to exist next week, it will no longer be possible for legislation to pass both houses of the Oireachtas according to the Attorney General.

The two traditional ruling parties have risen to the challenge posed by the unprecedented health emergency

A new taoiseach will have to be elected by the Dáil before the next Seanad can be constituted with the appointment of the taoiseach’s 11. There is no deadline for this but until it happens the new Seanad cannot meet.

Constitutional experts have challenged the Attorney General’s advice but the issue has forced Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to get down to the serious business of government negotiations. There is little doubt that they will be able to agree a policy platform but the question is whether they will be able to involve anybody else in supporting it, particularly if they are not involved in talks from the start.

A deal with the group of nine regional Independents has been mooted. If they agree to a deal then a new government would have a bare majority of 81 seats in the 160 member Dáil. Leo Varadkar has spoken about the need for a majority of 82 to 85 seats and that makes sense as the decisions about how to deal with the economic consequences of Covid-19 will require a strong and stable majority.

Coronavirus excuse

The Labour Party could have an important role to play here but the party is still in the throes of a leadership election which is not scheduled to conclude until April 5th. The new leader might be open to talks on entering government but would have to have a serious input into its policies to have any chance of carrying his membership with him.

Events have conspired to make the continuation of the current government untenable in the longer term and the creation of a new one fiendishly difficult. The health emergency has provided a legitimate excuse for delay but Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will have to come to some agreement fairly quickly on when a new taoiseach should be elected, who that should be and for how long.

Despite the battering each of them got in the general election, the two traditional ruling parties have risen to the challenge posed by the unprecedented health emergency. Just look at the momentous decisions that have been taken in the past week. Fine Gael in government, with the support of Fianna Fáil, has suspended private medicine and guaranteed a basic income in Ireland for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency.

This has been done without any serious disputes about whether the State or the market is best equipped to deal with the emergency. Broadly based parties of the centre may be unfashionable in many quarters but they have shown a capacity to respond with speed and efficiency to the enormity of the threat the pandemic poses to the welfare of the Irish people. Dealing with the aftermath will be the next challenge.

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