Juno McEnroe: Little choice for Martin but to befriend political nemeses Fine Gael

Juno McEnroe: Little choice for Martin but to befriend political nemeses Fine Gael

Mary Lou McDonald was still awaiting her St Valentine's Day letter from Micheál Martin, after her missive to the Fianna Fáil leader suggesting they cosy up together for coalition talks.

Martin, ever the coy Cork charmer, isn't sending his best wishes this year.

The bruised leader won't be beguiled by his Sinn Féin counterpart's advances. Instead, gutted after the election, he looks left with little choice but to befriend his political nemeses, Fine Gael. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

We are now witnessing political suitors dancing at the crossroads. Only a week ago today, the electorate went to the polls and demanded change. And in huge numbers.

Instead, all suggestions point to a major standoff. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are refusing to work with Sinn Féin, but are leaving the door open to coalescing with each other.

Martin said as much yesterday, while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar admitted so twice during the election campaign. Speaking to the Sunday Times, Varadkar said:

“But as both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have ruled out Sinn Féin if the numbers don't add up [with] Labour, Greens, Social Democrats and Independents, then there's only two possibilities.

"Either Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael work together or we have a second election.”

Equally, Martin admitted on RTÉ that he would be open to talks with Fine Gael and that a second election could not be ruled out.

Both camps accept as a coalition this is potentially the best of the worst options. And much more preferable than a second election, where Sinn Féin could likely come back with even stronger numbers.

Government negotiations in 2016 took 70 days. Nobody wants that this time. So what similarities or differences are there between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael?

A scan of their individual election manifestos reveals a striking correlation between the two centrist parties' election promises, from health to housing to climate change.

Any grand coalition involving Martin and Varadkar would need to prioritise housing. Its plans would likely go beyond the estimated 40,000 new homes a year promised by both in their manifestos.

Their promised supports for first-time buyers are also not a million miles apart, with Fianna Fáil aiming for a €10,000 upfront deposit and the €20,000 help-to-buy scheme while Fine Gael would cap the latter option at €30,000. Both parties promise minimal property tax rises.

In health, similar staff and service increases are on the cards. Both promise an extra 2,600 hospital beds this year, while nurse numbers would rise by between 4,000 and 5,000.

A key gap between the two parties is Fine Gael's pledge to allocate an extra €3bn more on health than Fianna Fáil. But their business supports and public sector pay expectations are similar.

Both would maintain the 12.5% low corporate tax rate while public sector pay increases have been budgeted at a cost of between €1.2bn and €2bn over five years.

One major difference is Fianna Fáil's pledge to reduce capital gains tax to 25%, which Fine Gael has warned is the “dumbest tax change” ever.

On personal taxation, there are important gaps, largely reflected in Fine Gael's plans. Its income tax promises would benefit the average worker by €3,000 and it would increase the rate at which higher income tax is paid from €35,300 to €50,000. Both parties want to reduce USC.

On pensions, they are neck and neck and agree there should be a transition payment when claimants reach 66. There are also similarities in commitments to increase carbon taxes to €80 a tonne by 2030, while both want to increase renewable electricity usage to 70% by 2030.

So both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are broad churches. They will talk to their members. And the hope at this stage - if there is a super coalition that would involve them and others - is that the two parties could come up smelling of roses, after five successful years in a political marriage of convenience.

They may choose to ignore Sinn Féin at their peril, but burying the hatchet on their civil war history could be a lot easier than we think. It just might take time.

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