Juno McEnroe: Politics abhors a vacuum - Coalition formation talks ahead

Juno McEnroe: Politics abhors a vacuum - Coalition formation talks ahead

Politics, just like nature, abhors a vacuum. The power void left by February’s general election has been instantly filled by the looming horror and scale of the coronavirus health crisis.

Rejected by voters, a caretaker government with one eye on the exit has had to do an about-turn and shuffle back into the ministerial corridors. The election left a stalemate. Suddenly, outgoing Fine Gael ministers have been thrust right back into their seats, filling the void amid the dire need to protect the masses.

The coronavirus has given the outgoing coalition, even with ministers who lost seats, fresh authority and a mandate to steer the country through this most uncertain time. For the moment.

Equally, as Fine Gael and rivals, Fianna Fáil, compete for control of the next government — new coalition talks will begin next week — both parties will be strangely assured by the fact that the peril posed by the virus could give the next government a clean slate.

Both parties admit that the virus will necessitate the use of billions of euro to support business losses, unemployment, frontline health staff, and an inevitable slowdown in the economy.

Virus fighting is first and foremost on the minds of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. After that, the government pot will be substantially reduced from what was forecast in the election and, crucially, from what was promised. Those election promises could become redundant.

Nonetheless, there will — after some time — be other priorities, beyond coronavirus.

Fianna Fáil figures say the same priorities from the election result — where there was no clear winner — will be on their agenda during coalition talks with Fine Gael.

These will be housing, general health reform, climate change, and the cost of living — and in that order.

Fianna Fáil wants to beef up the powers of the Land Development Agency, a body charged to deliver landbanks for the building of 150,000 new homes.

This deeper role would see the LDA go after public lands and those owned privately. Tough compulsory purchase measures could even be put to a referendum.

Crucially, Fianna Fáil supports the implementation of the Kenny report, from the 1970s, to put a cap on the price of land sold for housing.

“Kenny is back on the table; the concept of ensuring land is not treated as a commodity,” said a party source.

Building needs to be fast-tracked, say party figures. Department lands need to be submitted for housing planning; more capacity is needed in Bord Pleanála to deal with submissions, while there should be a preferred list of building contractors, according to the party.

Affordable homes will also remain a priority for Fianna Fáil in any new coalition.

“We need to invest in urban centres, rather than sprawl,” explained a party source, referencing the Fianna Fáil election promise to build thousands of low-cost homes.Fine Gael wants recognition of its housing programme, despite the homelessness crisis.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin at the count centre in Cork last month.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin at the count centre in Cork last month.

Both parties will heavily lean on Sláintecare, the cross-party-backed blueprint for the health service for the next decade, which proposes resourcing and reforming services.

However, Fine Gael’s promise to substantially cut income taxes will also be a bone of contention in talks.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had promised, if returned, that he would increase the higher rate of tax threshold from €35,300 to €50,000. But Fianna Fáil isn’t enthusiastic.

“They [Fine Gael] climbed down on this before, after failed promises to scrap the USC. They will have to climb down again. Nobody beat me at the doors over tax in the election,” said a senior Fianna Fáil figure. Instead, tax needs for the self-employed could be a happy medium for both parties to tackle

And then there is the cost of living. Fianna Fáil will argue for bigger insurance and mortgage-rate cost cuts. Fine Gael is also concerned about affordable childcare.

For the latter, divesting themselves of their achievements (or even failures) in power could be a tough ask.

Varadkar said as much in a letter to party members last week about the opening of the coalition talks with his rivals. Any government involving the two parties would have to include a policy platform that “builds on and protects” progress made by the last two Fine Gael governments.

These were keywords and may yet become a stumbling block between both sides. Especially as Fianna Fáil is adamant that the incumbents recognise “the beating from the electorate” and the need to overhaul policies in housing and health.

If not, voters could reject both parties even more next time, said the source: “Otherwise, we will be going back to the Dáil [after the next election] in a mini-bus, if those issues are not dealt with and they [Fine Gael] won’t be far behind in one.”

And this, even amid the virus emergency, will be at the back of the minds of negotiators when the rival parties sit down and talk together, next week.

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