Stephen Collins: Kelleher puts cat amongst post election pigeons

If the Coalition fails to hit the 70-seat mark the situation could get very messy

Billy Kelleher: Fianna Fail  will  not go into coalition with Fine Gael or Sinn Féin and will not support a Fine Gael-led minority government from the outside. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Billy Kelleher: Fianna Fail will not go into coalition with Fine Gael or Sinn Féin and will not support a Fine Gael-led minority government from the outside. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

As the election inches closer, the conundrum of how the next government is going to be put together assumes ever greater significance. That uncertainty is something that could have a bearing on the outcome of the election itself.

The declaration by Fianna Fáil director of elections Billy Kelleher this week that his party would not go into coalition with Fine Gael or Sinn Féin and would not support a Fine Gael-led minority government from the outside highlighted the potential dilemma facing the political system.

Of course, a crisis will be avoided if the outgoing Government retains its Dáil majority, but a succession of opinion polls indicates such an outcome is unlikely.

It is important to remember, though, that polls between elections are not necessarily a guide to the outcome. The example of what happened in the UK in recent years provides a salutary example.

For most of the period between the British elections of 2010 and 2015, the Labour Party was ahead of the Conservatives. The gap narrowed as the campaign drew closer and during the campaign itself they were neck and neck.

A hung parliament was regarded as the inevitable outcome and senior civil servants prepared for it. In the event the Conservative government confounded expectations by winning a slim but workable majority and it was Labour that was plunged into chaos.

Stability versus chaos

However, given our system of proportional representation, it is hard to see Fine Gael and Labour getting the 80 seats required for a majority in the 158-member Dáil.

One of the strongest arguments the Coalition parties have is that they are the only ones offering the voters a government. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have said they will not go into coalition unless they are the biggest party.

Given that the Fine Gael will almost certainly have more seats than Fianna Fáil and that it in turn will have more seats than Sinn Féin, it means a Fine Gael/ Fianna Fáil coalition or a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition has effectively been ruled out.

So what do the options look like at this stage? The most likely result – and it is by no means certain – is Fine Gael and Labour will have about 70 seats between them. If they have slightly more than 70, they should be able to put together a deal with a few Independents such as Michael Lowry, Michael Healy-Rae, Noel Grealish and Denis Naughten who left Fine Gael over the Roscommon hospital issue.

All four of these TDs voted for Enda Kenny for taoiseach in 2011 so would probably have no objection to doing so again if they got a deal that suited their individual needs and convinced the Government had the capacity to last. In that situation, some other Independents might also try to clamber on board.

However, if the Coalition fails to hit the 70-seat mark and needs the support of 10 or 12 TDs from outside its ranks, the situation could get very messy. The uncertainty involved in including so many disparate individuals or groups would make the formation of a stable government unlikely.

The fun will really start if nobody can assemble the numbers required to be elected taoiseach when the Dáil resumes after the election. If, as happened once before in 1989, Enda Kenny and the other party leaders are proposed and defeated in the vote for taoiseach, all sorts of options become possible.

The assumption is that Fianna Fáil would have to step into the breach and offer to keep the current Coalition in power either through the formation of a grand coalition or by backing it from outside.

There are big downsides to either proposition from a Fianna Fáil point of view. Participating as a junior party in a coalition could mark the end of the party’s ambitions to recover its status as the biggest party in the country. Supporting a Fine Gael-led government from the outside might even be worse, as it would have responsibility without power.

It can also be argued that the national interest would not be served by leaving the Opposition side of the Dáil entirely to Sinn Féin, the hard left and a variety of others.

Depending on the figures, Fianna Fáil’s other option could be to attempt to take power with the tacit support of all the anti-Fine Gael elements in the Dáil.

The current situation in our fellow bailout country, Portugal, is an example of what can happen. The outgoing centre-right government of Pedro Passos Coelho, which turned the country’s economy around, emerged as the biggest force in parliament after the recent general election but failed to win an overall majority.

Economic recovery

Socialist Party

Instead the Socialists have done a deal with the Communists and a Syriza-like party, both of whom reject the kind of policies that underpin the economic recovery. The Socialists appear to be on the point of assuming power with the support of the radical left.

It is unlikely Fianna Fáil would try something similar here or that Sinn Féin and the hard left would go along with it, but if the Dáil fails to elect a taoiseach first time around, nothing can be ruled out.

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