Micheál Martin’s outright rejection of a coalition offer by Taoiseach Enda Kenny has thrown government formation talks into disarray and increased the chances of a second election.
The two leaders openly traded bitter remarks last night as the fallout over the rejected offer saw Independent TDs threatening to pull the plug on minority government talks.
If this last option to form a government is exhausted, Mr Kenny may be forced to seek the President’s permission for another general election.
The prospect of the two working together unravelled after Mr Martin delivered a terse rejection of Mr Kenny’s surprise offer — made the night before — of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Independents working together in a triumvirate coalition.
A tense four-hour meeting of the Fianna Fáil party in Leinster House yesterday heard cautious TDs and senators largely oppose the proposal and many voiced concern that voters would punish them if they reneged on election promises and joined with the old enemy.
Writing in this newspaper today, justice spokesman Niall Collins also highlights how a government with the two big parties would allow Sinn Féin and others grow in opposition.
Mr Martin told reporters yesterday that, at the private Wednesday meeting, Mr Kenny had “pulled the rug” from under the talks to form a minority government with Independents and instead, “out of the blue” put a grand plan for a coalition involving Fianna Fáil on the table.
He raised concerns about “the integrity” of the talks process, the choreography, and even went as far as saying that “the last 24 hours left a lot to be desired”.
Ultimately, he said the offer had been rejected as a large majority government with the two big parties was “not in the national interest”.
Mr Martin though left the door open on “facilitating” a Fine Gael minority government, including upcoming budgets, and said he “hoped” that some agreement could be reached on voting for a taoiseach, a third attempt at which will be made next Thursday.
The criticisms of Mr Kenny’s handling of the offer immediately saw his senior ministers come out and defend the coalition offer.
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney called the rejection an “historic missed opportunity”, which could have changed Irish politics.
But it would now be difficult” to ask Independents to sign up to any deal, unless there was agreement with the opposition, namely Fianna Fáil, he added.
Mr Kenny defended the offer, while also attacking Mr Martin’s decision.
He said: “I believe that this decision is a serious mistake and one which was driven by narrow party interests rather than the national interest.”
Nonetheless, it is understood Fianna Fáil intends to plough on with efforts to lead a minority government and last night began plans to agree more meetings with Independent TDs. While Fine Gael have no immediate plans, Mr Kenny’s spokesman said he would let the coalition offer “sit for a bit” with Fianna Fáil.
However, with just days to go before the next vote for taoiseach, there are fresh doubts over whether Independent TDs are willing to be dragged back into more talks. A number contacted by the Irish Examiner indicated they may now not, pushing the possibility of another election even closer.
Denis Naughten, one of five rural TDs involved in talks, said it would be “pointless” to re-enter negotiations without firm assurances that a minority government would last.
Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath said: “The two parties must now show us a clear road map on how a minority could work or be supported, otherwise it’s pointless for us to go into talks.”
Independent Alliance TD John Halligan said he would take the weekend to decide whether to proceed with government formation talks.
Separately, party whips agreed to establish a Dáil committee on housing and homelessness, to be debated when the Dáil resumes next Thursday.
Sinn Féin said the committee would control the agenda and invite in experts and charities. The following week the Dáil will meet for three days to discuss issues including Brexit, health, and the budgetary process.
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