Juno McEnroe: Battle for Tánaiste the big draw on election undercard

Labour’s Brendan Howlin and the Green Party’s Eamon Ryan are the main contenders for the deputy leadership role in a very likely coalition government, says Juno McEnroe

Juno McEnroe: Battle for Tánaiste the big draw on election undercard

The race to be Taoiseach may be front and centre, but the election will also decide who will be Tánaiste and which minority party will enter into coalition.

The first few hours of counting of votes, after they have been cast on February 8, will indicate not just which party has elected the most TDs, but the popularity of the smaller parties, one of whom may be kingmaker in the formation of the next government.

With Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leading in opinion polls, either Micheál Martin or Leo Varadkar will be Taoiseach.

So who will be Tánaiste? And with both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael ruling out — so far — working with Sinn Féin, the next biggest parties are likely to be the Green Party or Labour. The race for Tánaiste could then be between Eamon Ryan and Brendan Howlin.

In past periods of Fianna Fáil rule, Tánaiste was an honorary position given to the deputy leader of the party. While the Constitution allows the Taoiseach to appoint the Tánaiste, the leader of the second-largest party in a coalition gets the job. The same can be expected after this election.

Because the days of a Dáil majority for one party are over, the smooth running of the office of Tánaiste and his/her relationship with the Taoiseach are intrinsic to a long-lasting government.

Former Progressive Democrats leader and former Tánaiste, Michael McDowell, knows this only too well and has some wise words for the next deputy government leader.

“You have to have a relationship of trust with the Taoiseach. You have to work hard in creating one. In the past, the relationship between Dick Spring (Labour) and Albert Reynolds (Fianna Fáil) was a very fraught relationship. So that can be a problem,” Mr McDowell says.

In the absence of the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste answers Dáil questions and acts as a mudguard against opposition attacks, even if he/she disagrees with the Taoiseach on a matter, says Mr McDowell.

“You [as Tánaiste] may have a different perspective than the Taoiseach and you have to be extremely careful to maintain that solidarity in your reply,” he says.

Both Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan, and Labour leader, Brendan Howlin, have worked in a government, in Cabinet, before. They know the sacrifices and hardlines of being a junior coalition partner.

Mr Howlin entered the Dáil, for Wexford, in 1987. The former teacher has been elected eight times, topping the poll often.

His first opportunity in office was under Dick Spring, in 1993, as health minister in the then Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition.

After its collapse, Mr Howlin went on to serve as environment minister, under the rainbow coalition of Fine Gael, Labour, and Democratic Left, from 1994 to 1997.

Juno McEnroe: Battle for Tánaiste the big draw on election undercard

In opposition, he initially was deputy leader, and later Leas-Cheann Chomhairle, from 2007 to 2011.

By 2011, under the so-called ‘Gilmore gale’, Labour had won 37 seats and Mr Howlin had taken on his most challenging, yet powerful, role, that of the minister for expenditure during a recession.

Labour went on to be crucified at the last election, in 2016, and Mr Howlin, brought in as leader, began the daunting task of resuscitating the badly bruised party.

Without doubt, when the 33rd Dáil sits after this election, Mr Howlin will be one of the most experienced members of it (if elected), having come through a whirlwind political career.

Mr Ryan has less experience in government. But there is a green wave, his previously battered party is rising, and he has an understanding of how tough government can be.

The south Dubliner, after running a cycling company, entered politics and topped the poll in the 1999 local elections for Rathmines. By 2002, he and five other Green TDs were elected to the Dáil and remained in opposition until the 2007 election.

Then, at the height of the economic boom, the party went into coalition with Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats.

Mr Ryan became energy minister. While he progressed wind energy, broadband, and electric vehicles, to varying degrees, he came under fire for not stopping the Shell gas pipeline in Mayo.

Juno McEnroe: Battle for Tánaiste the big draw on election undercard

When the crash came, the coalition was eviscerated and the Greens withdrew from government. But it was too late. None were returned to the 31st Dáil, in 2011. Nonetheless, Mr Ryan took up the mantle of leader, like Mr Howlin did later, and started the arduous process of rebuilding the party.

Most Dáil colleagues are complimentary of Mr Howlin and of Mr Ryan. Both are described as amicable, approachable, and people who can be worked with in government.

Fianna Fail’s Willie O’Dea, who was in Cabinet with Mr Ryan, says:

He is collegiate, polite, reasonable, and easy to deal with, as well as pragmatic, even when disagreeing things. He would be an effective Tánaiste.

TD Éamon Ó Cuív also speaks well of his former Cabinet colleague.

“We got on well together and worked closely on the Bellmullet gas line issues. He is amicable, but not soft,” Mr Ó Cuív says.

Former Fine Gael minister Jimmy Deenihan points to Mr Howlin’s experience in the post-recession, Fine Gael-Labour coalition, from 2011 to 2016.

“Brendan was part of the four-man economic management council, with then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, which was instrumental in getting the economy into good health. He was very approachable, but everybody had to be tough,” Mr Deenihan says.

That council was at the apex of government, making key economic decisions before they were tabled by the larger Cabinet for approval. The country was broke and Mr Howlin’s unenviable task, as expenditure minister, was to curtail spending

“Labour paid a price for putting the country first,” says Mr Deenihan.

He would be a very good Tánaiste and will likely have one of the best records of experience in the next Dáil. That’s important in a coalition.

Some others are not as flattering. Former justice minister Alan Shatter, from the same coalition, told this newspaper: “Unfortunately, he [Howlin] pushed for reductions with no regard to consequences. I successfully fought an enormous battle to maintain garda numbers at 13,000 and opposed Howlin’s demand, as FF agreed with the Troika, to reduce the numbers to 12,000.”

Mr Shatter is equally critical of Mr Howlin’s role in cutting Defence Forces numbers.

Experience aside, both the Green Party and Labour leaders will likely go into coalition-formation talks after this election, depending on their Dáil numbers.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two biggest parties, are ruling out working with Sinn Féin and Mary Lou McDonald. For the moment, the chances of her being in a coalition are limited. It would be a seismic shift in Irish politics if Sinn Féin did enter government. It probably won’t.

On the table for the smaller parties will be not only the role of Tánaiste and Cabinet posts, but what the leaders want to achieve in power. It will all be about red lines, negotiables, and give-and-take.

Again, those pre-government talks are crucial for a smaller party and can define a Tánaiste’s ability, as Michael McDowell explains: “They [the leader] need to decide what ministers and departments they want. That has problems, because the leader of the big party might not want to commit to particular ministries.”

Geography matters, too, says Mr McDowell, when divvying out portfolios. But Mr McDowell’s top advice is for the next Tánaiste to keep an open mind during coalition talks.

“It [the smaller party] should minimise its red lines and not try to throw shapes.

Data courtesy of Irish Times

“The extent to which you can throw shapes depends on your united strength,” Mr McDowell says.

And the numbers will matter when it comes to who will be in coalition. Party conferences will also have to approve any deal.

The latest Irish Times/MRBI IPSOS poll suggests Labour could be in position for eight seats, while the Greens look certain to dramatically increase their Dáil seats to potentially a dozen or more. If that scenario occurs, Mr Ryan would be favourite for Tánaiste.

Ultimately, key demands and red lines will matter in these crunch talks. Mr Howlin has already laid out five non-negotiable areas, including agreement on a living wage, a housing plan to build 80,000 affordable homes, and expanded free GP care.

Mr Ryan is more general about the Greens’ demands, saying he believes in “principles.” Higher carbon taxes, more public transport, and a major retrofitting scheme would likely figure in any coalition talks for the Greens.

Mr Ryan is also a little looser about potential political bedfellows. He told the Irish Examiner, in a recent interview:

I’ve always said this — it sounds promiscuous — but I’d get into bed with anyone. I would.

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