Stephen Collins: Varadkar should hold power until crisis ends
Level of trust inspired by the Taoiseach on Tuesday night will be needed for what is ahead
All the rules have changed for politics in a time of coronavirus. The historic and moving St Patrick’s night television address to the nation by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, coupled with the meeting of a skeleton Dáil to pass emergency legislation, have illustrated the magnitude of the crisis.
Everybody in the country is coming to terms with the impact on their day-to-day lives as a result of the measures introduced to deal with Covid-19 and it is clear that politics, already shaken by an unexpected election result, will have to adapt in an even more fundamental way to deal with the fallout from the pandemic.
Varadkar’s address had a reassuring and uplifting impact on a deeply worried nation. The contrast in style with the bumbling UK prime minister Boris Johnson or the malevolent US president Donald Trump was stark and it gave confidence to a worried public that those in charge of the country at this very dark time know what they are about.
Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have shown a commendable level of restraint since the start of the emergency
That has raised the question in the minds of many, in politics and outside it, as to whether it makes sense to elect a new taoiseach at a time of such national emergency. The level of trust inspired by Varadkar on Tuesday night will be needed every day for the next two months as the crisis deepens and the health service is stretched to the limit.
Since Covid-19 reached our shores the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, have shown an impressive level of commitment and competence and it has to be asked whether it is in the national interest to shift either of them from their positions until the worst of the health emergency has passed.
That said, there is no escaping the fact that in the general election Fine Gael did not get a mandate to continue as before. The will of the people was clearly expressed and the result means that at the very least Fine Gael will have to conclude a partnership arrangement with Fianna Fáil to retain a share of power.
The question, though, is whether a change in government in the coming weeks is desirable or even practicable. The answer to both parts of the question depends to a large extent on the attitude taken by the other big parties in the Dáil. One of the omissions in Varadkar’s otherwise excellent speech was any reference to them.
It has to be said that Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have shown a commendable level of restraint since the start of the emergency. Both parties have been briefed by the Government on a regular basis but an acknowledgement by the Taoiseach of their commitment to the national interest would have been appropriate.
Talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil negotiators on the formation of a new government have been curtailed by the need to focus on the coronavirus emergency. When they do get going in earnest, agreement on a programme for government should not take too long. The more difficult question will be agreement on a process for how the post of rotating taoiseach is going to work and when the changeover will take place.
There is also a practical aspect to this. The 160 members of the Dáil are now unable to meet as a body due to the social distancing rules.
When the Dáil met on Thursday to debate emergency legislation, a maximum of 48 TDs were allowed in the chamber. Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl wrote to party leaders last week proposing that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin limit the number of their TDs attending to 11 each, with pro rata reductions for other parties and groups.
In these circumstances it has to be asked if it would be feasible to proceed with the election of a new taoiseach in the weeks ahead. However, whatever short-term arrangements are made will have to be arrived at by consensus. Varadkar cannot simply remain in office unless a majority of TDs accept that it is necessary.
It will be important for the working relationship between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in government that they arrive at a common view of what should happen in the immediate future – as well as the longer term. Whatever happens on the health front, the economic cost will be enormous and the formation of a government with a secure majority is essential.
At this stage it appears there is little prospect of the Green Party participating in a coalition. The party’s call for a three-month national government made no sense in the midst of such an emergency, and only confirmed the “barmy” image so beloved of its opponents. The decision of the Greens to opt out of serious talks on coalition means a new government will need the support of a group of independents and maybe others as well.
The possibility of support from the Labour Party, either from inside or outside government, is another avenue that should be explored once that party has elected a new leader. Unlike other left-wing forces, Labour has put the national interest first throughout its history and could again play an important role in ensuring the country has a government at a time of national crisis.