Gerard Howlin: Fianna Fáil's next move may be its last

Fianna Fáil's 14% in the Red C poll on Sunday would have worried many in Micheál Martin's party, writes Gerard Howlin

Gerard Howlin: Fianna Fáil's next move may be its last

In a few weeks we will know if the Greens jumped over the cliff yesterday into government formation negotiations, or were just bungee jumping. The best outcome for them and Fianna Fáil is that every effort is made but agreement in the end is unsuccessful, and both agree to blame Fine Gael.

Of course the country needs a government — but not that one. To be effective, a government needs numbers for ballast, a shared mission for cohesion and to be in tune with the times. It is natural to be anxious, but it is foolish to be rattled by the political vacuum. Able politicians make time their secretary.

We have reasonably effective government after a fashion, for now. Fine Gael is at 35% in Sunday’s RedC poll. The poll ratings of governments generally is on the up, while trust in business is declining internationally. Ireland is on-trend. If mistakes have been made, much has been done right. The aftermath, however, will be different.

There is economic Armageddon in the offing. Notions of an austerity-free future are nonsense.

Regardless of levels of State spending, if you are unemployed you are immediately up to your oxters in misery. A benign forecast says that after a high of 22% unemployment this year, we will get below 10% next year. Minister Regina Doherty stated the obvious yesterday, saying that Covid payments can’t go on indefinitely. Engorged public expenditure is unsustainable.

Getting through Covid-19 is the easy piece. The aftermath is the real crisis. This is why the next government must have broad shoulders, and a wrap around on the opposition that can upend it, as reality bites next winter. This current effort at government formation, is for politicians who are afraid to take the stabilisers off the bike.

After gentlemanly introductions yesterday, the formation process it is set to get down to business tomorrow. The business in hand for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is to hold on.

It is to hold on to office certainly. For some personally it is to have one more go. For others it is to have the only go they are ever likely to have. More importantly it is to hold on to what is familiar — although it is already over. Like the family of Justice O’Donnell in Brian Friel’s play Aristocrats, the old man is bedridden upstairs while the adult children below, live on in ramshackle grandeur, but unable to adapt or cope in a new world.

Appeals to ’’hold the centre’’, preached with a virtue once associated with the foreign missions, give what is grubby a patina of decency. But it is a cartoon of what was, not the thing itself. Fianna Fáil has passed from being a catch-all party, to a bailiwick for pensioners and farmers.

Fine Gael, whatever Paschal Donohoe might say, thinks the political centre is a pickup joint for casual dates, not a place to meet your own. Since 2011, Fianna Fáil unable to recover momentum or reimagine a new mission, together with a Fine Gael which always finds new reserves of hubris, have shrunk the political centre to a minority interest. This planned government, if it happens, will monetise that loss politically one last time.

Together they disassociated from a generation of voters. Now they prepare to double down on that failure, to fail again, but worse. What is in play is personal ambition, devoid of political vision. It is clinging to what is familiar but falling down. It is at its best the lack of imagination of decent but mediocre people, who cannot let go, to go forward. And so, they are destined to be left behind. The vision of the national interest is one that coincides with their own. That is a happy coincidence — but a little more self-awareness would yield less incredulity.

The banality of holding the centre, the inanity of going on as we were, could only comfort the satisfied. The Greens have a different constituency. They are change makers politically, but not natural outsiders socially. The pressure to get in, to do something is real for two reasons. Like well-meaning people in the other two parties they want to deliver. They are part of the cultural now, in ways that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are not. But what they want to do politically, is mix oil and water.

Politically it is fraught. What is planned is a construction with maximum exposure to political danger.

And then there is that which is barely spoken of. Fianna Fáil’s 14% in the RedC poll on Sunday, 8% down on election day. Make every allowance, and allow it to be only half true and it’s still game over. Any backbench TD with wit, will either go independent or wait for the inevitable end. In a centre that has grown, however artificially, since the election, Fine Gael has grown twice as fast. It must be eyeing an election, however implausible the prospects in the circumstances.

But it has cards to play, as distinct to being in a cul de sac it drove into, eyes wide open, past clearly marked signs. A hypothetical election is one. Cossetting the comfortable is another. It is the comfort zone, not the centre ground that is Fine Gael’s home. It is always a quarter of the population. Depending on the direction of the tide, others come and go. But Fine Gael has a future and it can grow in opposition, if it can’t cash in its recent gains in an election.

Fianna Fáil, in the ultimate example of political mediocrity, failed to change its position when the facts changed. The facts did change completely on February 8. But its TDs are still strapped into a plan that never materialised, conceived in circumstances that have vanished. Judge O’Donnell is barracking down from upstairs in a once-grand house. The wittering adult children continuing on in a what-could-have-been world. But it’s over. What is gone too, is the energy of the old man and all that is left is the bloody mindedness.

There comes a time, when new beginnings are required. The Greens are new. They have energy but lack the brutality of politics to force a Fianna Fáil, with no other options, to accept the principle of a national government. That might well allow Fine Gael slip away up the gravel driveway, home. It would mean going into government with Sinn Féin and probably others who would follow. It would be the profound break we have half made over three elections now. That break is not the arrival of Sinn Féin. They are messengers, not a messiah.

Parties sidling up to centenary celebrations should see them as dire warnings. Few rejuvenate sufficiently to go on and on. The question for Fianna Fáil is whether it can go on at all. Its next move may be its last. For the Greens, they won’t save the planet if they can’t save themselves.

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