Gerard Howlin: Green leader Eamon Ryan will be Tánaiste this year. Well, maybe...

In 2020, Eamon Ryan will be Tánaiste and the general election result will be so close to 50:50 that the two main political parties will end up with 50 seats each. Those are my predictions for 2020.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan might hold the balance of power after any general election this year. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan might hold the balance of power after any general election this year. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

You shouldn’t be a pundit if you won’t risk making a fool of yourself. Any number of factors could blow my predictions off course. Most Irish elections are finely tuned. None so far have been as multifaceted.

The Government has started the new year on the front foot. Environment Minister Richard Bruton has announced plans for electric-cars-only by 2030, decarbonisation, and brown bins.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is back to promising tax cuts all-round and pay rises for public servants.

He again roused those who get up early in the morning. He is right about the key group he has identified for Fine Gael. The question is whether they are still open to being “bribed” with their own money, which, after public servants have licked the bowl, will leave little for public services.

Fine Gael believe they have laid a trap for Fianna Fáil, or perhaps that Micheál Martin has walked into one of his own making. In putting Varadkar on the spot, Martin insisted on an agreed agenda until Easter. Varadkar can say, “of course, Micheál, but I no longer have the numbers to meet the terms of confidence-and-supply”.

Legislation patching it up is easy. There is a shortlist both can agree on. It is the next confidence motion that matters. If the Independents, including the Healy Raes, Thomas Pringle, and Mattie McGrath, won’t abstain, and when Varadkar can’t muster 56 votes to ensure Fianna Fáil’s abstention under confidence-and-supply is sufficient, the show is over.

The net issue is whether this Dáil meets again on January 15, or only perfunctorily to be dissolved.

The promised meeting between Varadkar and Martin will be the moment they see the whites of one another’s eyes. It is hard to see how an early election suits either.

John Bruton, Charlie Haughey, and Liam Cosgrave all bolted, but stumbled. The context for calling an election is unlikely, weeks later, on polling day, to remain an impetus for positive support.

The margin of electoral error for Fine Gael is now nil. The risk for Fianna Fáil, or for those at the top of it, is that if they miss this chance, whenever it come again, it won’t include them.

The issue for Martin, if he wants an orderly Easter, is if he will, or can, provide TDs to keep the Government in power. There is sense in never asking a question to which you don’t know the answer.

Incidentally, an early election instantly makes Sinn Féin the hostage of the DUP. The former needs to be in government in Stormont before an election here.

Whatever their destination on power-sharing, the DUP will surely deny them that prize, the cost of keeping Northern Ireland politics in lockdown for a few more weeks notwithstanding.

There are signs that thepre-Christmas ardour in Fine Gael for an early election has abated.

There are reasons to wait, not least the unpleasantness of a February election, and the opportunity for the Taoiseach to be centre stage as post-Brexit trade talks begin. The party needs more time between it and all its Murphys.

It needs to consolidate in Dublin and gain outside of it to stand still or make even incremental gains.

Its candidates need more time in several constituencies, in an election where every single one matters. It is tonally only ever a half note off hubris in its public personality. It has never understood that the sound of its own fog horn is as unappealing as an alarm clock at 6am.

Consolidation in Dublin, where Fine Gael starts out one seat down with the retirement of Seán Barrett, also means coping with a likely seat loss in Dublin North West and the fact of Senator Michael McDowell putting its second seat in Dublin Bay South under pressure. A seat gain is possible in Dublin West, where Ruth Coppinger and Joan Bruton are in doubt.

That requires Leo Varadkar doing everything, as distinct from nothing, for his running mate. Senator Neale Richmond unseating Transport Minister Shane Ross in Dublin Rathdown is another, but challenging, possibility. That’s the terrain between Fine Gael and the status quo in the capital.

The rise of the Greens, whose only real opponent is themselves, is potentially defining. A tally of 10, or even a dozen, seats is possible for them.

Idealists, who have yet to pay the price of what they propose, but destined never to enjoy the same quality skiing as their parents, the Greens are educated achievers.

They are middle-class in aspiration, if not always in means. They are the ones to whom Richard Bruton spoke so passionately on electric cars and brown bins. They are pivotal to this election.

The two main parties have a choice. They can bandwagon the green agenda, and hope for transfers, or they can do that anyway and tackle the Greens, head on, on the costs and practicalities of some of their proposals.

A key issue the two Green MEPs served up before Christmas is their European Parliament vote to end Ireland’s national veto on tax policy and to support qualified majority voting, instead.

What would the position of Tánaiste Ryan be, mid-2020, when the OECD likely delivers its proposals on how, and where, multinational profits are taxed?

And before we get there, what is the Green Party position on the €14bn in Apple tax being litigated in Europe?

As the late Séamus Brennan put it, when he met the Greens, about to enter government, in 2007: “this is senior hurling.” An apt seasonal metaphor might be King Herod and the slaughter of the innocents. The problem wasn’t that Herod was wrong, it was that he was inefficient.

This is something Fine Gael particularly might consider sooner rather than later.

The clock is ticking on a Dáil that might never return. The competition is between two large parties vying for rights to marshal forces that include the Greens, Labour, SocDems, and others.

The problem for a party on 50 or so seats is that it’s a long way to 80, and a house of cards must be to built to reach it.

If it is built, it will hardly last as long as the confidence-and-supply that it replaced.

So I see, again, on the horizon, a great ship, the Grand Coalition. It was preposterous in 2016 and would have gifted an ascendant Sinn Féin.

Now, the dispersal of the alternative, and the fact of confidence-and-supply, makes what was unthinkable viable. Tánaiste Ryan has two enemies: His own idealists and his opponents’ instinct for power.

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