Practical realities stand in the way of a pre-Christmas election

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs may have to put up with their loveless confidence and supply marriage for a while longer, writes Political Correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

As anyone who has gone through a messy divorce will know all too well, just because you are at each other’s throats and ready to storm out the door doesn’t mean you can do so without first tying up a few loose ends.

And, despite the play-acting over the airwaves and in print that will bombard the country over the coming days, the unhappily politically married Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin are practical enough to be all too aware of this reality.

In the 24 hours since Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe got to his feet in the Dáil to reveal the “not an election budget” giveaways, attention has quickly turned to when — shock, horror — the completely unrelated general election will be.

A December 7 date has been mooted and would suit a significant number of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs sick of their loveless confidence and supply deal marriage.

However, in order to hit this date, a series of finance bill, abortion legislation, and Brexit hurdles will have to be overcome addressed, meaning the seemingly popular time-frame is not necessarily as practical as it first seems.

If an early December election date is to become a reality, the Dáil will need to be dissolved by mid-November to allow for a three-week campaign run-in.

And although such a schedule was hinted at by Mr Varadkar in the less than subtle Halloween deadline for confidence and supply renewal talks he gave on Tuesday night, it will put significant pressure on TDs and senators to rush through the budget legislation.

As part of any budget, a finance bill and a social welfare bill must be passed this side of Christmas to allow the tax and benefits changes to come into legal effect from January 1.

Presuming both bills can, as expected, navigate their way through the initial Dáil and Seanad debates over the coming fortnight, the finance bill is due to go before the finance committee for committee stage scrutiny on November 7-9.

It will then have to be sent back to the Dáil and Seanad for further review by mid-November, with a similar process for the social welfare bill unlikely to be finished before December 11.

If necessary, a shortcut can be found to the legal process, a situation that occurred in late 2010 in order to facilitate a snap election when all parties in the Dáil agreed to enact the changes regardless of the election result.

However, Ireland in 2018 is not Ireland in 2010, and with the IMF wolves no longer howling at our financial door it would seem unlikely that a repeat of the united budget approach will be repeated if asked for.

A sped-up schedule could also be put forward.

However, while Fine Gael sources have indicated this could happen, Fianna Fáil, which would need to nod through any quicker timeline, will be less than helpful in that regard, given its leader Mr Martin has repeatedly said the third confidence and supply deal budget runs to December.

And pushing ahead with a December election regardless of the foot-dragging would mean Government TDs will risk having to explain to voters why their budget giveaways have been delayed by the failure to pass the finance bill with Christmas looming in the background.

While it has not gained much attention, a similar situation is also apparent around the abortion legislation, which is due for health committee scrutiny on November 7 once it passes through the Dáil and Seanad.

Again, the schedule could be sped up, provided pro-life politicians do not choose to filibuster — a situation that remains in doubt — while if everything goes to plan the bill will be passed and taken off the political table by mid-November, leaving just enough time to call a December vote.

However, if any delays occur, there is no guarantee the live political grenade will have been fully defused during a tense election campaign, a situation that is the last problem the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil hierarchies need.

And, even if these two legal obstacles are overcome, there is another large elephant in the room still standing in the way.

Although it is increasingly being seen as less of an obstacle than previously thought, Brexit remains a hurdle potentially blocking an election this side of the new year.

Any indication of a deal at next week’s vital EU summit would help give Mr Varadkar the opportunity to convince people to cut and run towards a pre-Christmas election date.

However, despite the positive vibes over the weekend from Mr Varadkar and European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker, yesterday’s news that the DUP will refuse to back a British budget if prime minister Theresa May agrees to treat Northern Ireland in any way differently to the rest of the UK Britain means it is far from certain an agreement will appear.

And as Ms May will no doubt admit in her more private moments, holding an unnecessary election in the middle of Brexit negotiations in a bid to strengthen your hand is far from the wisest of moves.

With the dust settling on Budget 2019, Leinster House has already turned its attention to the mystery election date.

Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are ready, willing, and more than able to cause an election at any point between now and Christmas, and the Dáil winter break will give them just the window of opportunity to do so, if votes fall the way they want.

But while there are clear reasons for calling a vote now, there are just as many practical realities that will prevent any sudden rush to the polls — meaning despite the speculation it could still be early next year before the now inevitable election divorce date is called.


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