Cast your mind back to 2007. Fine Gael had a good result, putting on a full 20 seats over the rout which was 2002. But that good result still only involved FG having 51 seats to Fianna Fáil’s 77.
Nevertheless, Kenny found it difficult to accept he had actually lost and pretended there was some other non-FF-led government out there which didn’t include Sinn Féin. This was despite an unlikely four-party coalition of FG plus Labour plus the Greens plus the PDs still falling four seats short of the magic number of 83.
We know what happened: Bertie Ahern became Taoiseach again and Enda Kenny was made to look a little foolish. He had done a lot for FG’s fortunes but not enough by quite a long chalk.
Perhaps stung by the criticism that rained down on him then, Kenny is today in danger of going to the other extreme and failing to claim victory.
True, FG at the time of writing was on course for 76 seats, more than FG and Labour put together in 2007, but still some way short of 83.
Nevertheless, an authentic FG government is within reach. But Kenny, for some reason, doesn’t seem to want to lead it. Instead, the FG leadership team are making it abundantly clear they want a FG-Labour right-left government instead. It might be traditional but that doesn’t make it coherent.
The difference between 76 and 83 might not be great in numerical terms but it can be an agonising gap when it comes to coalition formation. But look at the opposition benches. Not only are there still 20 FF TDs there promising to be constructive but a whole host of independents, perhaps 14, some of which are from the FG gene pool and many others who are far from being Trotskyites.
Say FG could come to deal with four or five of them. On what issue would Labour, FF, SF, the United Left Alliance and all the remaining independents come together to deny the Government its programme? It’s hard to envisage. And how many of them want an early election, or can even afford one? Certainly, FF will want this Dáil to go full-term if they are to have any chance whatsoever of rebuilding their shattered organisation.
Some TDs elected on the FF platform might even be wondering if the party has a long-term future and might be looking for a new political home.
It is known that Enda Kenny has established a good rapport with British Prime Minister David Cameron. A good thing too. They talk from time to time. Is it possible that Kenny’s thinking is informed by those discussions?
Cameron, like Kenny, came home last year just short of a majority but decided to form a coalition with a left-wing party rather than try to rule as a minority government.
Now there was a lot of talk in Britain about building a strong coalition which can take difficult decisions and about a relationship of mutual respect between Cameron and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader.
Suddenly, two parties which have been on different sides of the fence for, practically, centuries, except in times of war, suddenly decided they had lots in common after all. More pragmatically, Cameron didn’t want to be in the same position as John Major — in hock to the far right.
But the truth of the matter is, Cameron did not have a choice. Enda Kenny does. Cameron was 20 seats short of a majority; 12 short if some kind of deal could have been struck with the DUP. He would have faced on the opposition benches, however, three main blocs — Labour, the Lib Dems and the Nationalists — all of which would have cheerfully voted his government out at a moment’s notice.
Furthermore, in terms of cabinet seats and on policy, Cameron had to give far less ground to form a coalition than FG would to Labour. The Conservatives have more than five times as many seats as the Lib Dems; FG has only double Labour’s total. Clegg might be Deputy Prime Minister, a grand title, but all the key offices of state — Treasury, Foreign and Commonwealth, and Home — are in Conservative hands.
To strike a deal with Labour, FG will certainly have to concede one of those equivalents and probably two of them.
As Joanna Tuffy TD put it: “It can’t be a Fine Gael-driven government, it has to be a Labour-driven, social democratic government.”
Cameron leads an unquestionably Conservative government with a Lib Dem component — does Enda Kenny want to lead a social democratic government? Perhaps he does, several academic data suggest most FG TDs are well to the left of their voters.
The putative FG-Labour coalition makes little strategic sense from Labour’s point of view either, as Tuffy was perhaps hinting. Eamon Gilmore’s bargaining hand, despite delivering a record performance, is not as strong as it might be. For once, FG has options and Labour knows it.
And has Gilmore looked across at the British example one wonders? The coalition there, predictably, is pretty unpopular after having to administer some strong medicine on the economic front. But it is the Lib Dems, the partner which makes cuts more reluctantly, which is bearing the brunt, just as Labour has lost ground after all its recent experiences of Coalition with FG, dropping seats in 1987 and in 1997.
Gilmore is, understandably, revelling in Labour’s new status as the second-largest party. He talks of a FG-Labour coalition being a “national government” between the two largest parties in the state.
His desire to see Labour wielding some power again after 14 years in opposition is palpable. But it is not defeatist to say a spell in government at a time like this will probably do the long-term Labour project no good.
Meanwhile, FF will have had an opportunity to rise from the ashes as the leading opposition party. SF will be the party best positioned to attack the Government from a position of principle.
The question is: is it in the national interest for Labour to help FF and SF? Or isn’t the truly patriotic option for Labour to sacrifice the ministerial cars and take four or five years to end Civil War politics for good and establish itself as the unquestioned alternative to FG as the leading party of government? That is the prize Gilmore would be giving up by going into coalition now.
If that is not the case, the question he must answer is this: does he really believe that junior coalition partner in a government implementing decisions which are anathema to his party’s principles is the position from which Labour can supplant one of the Civil War parties as the largest party in the State? Does he really believe that a 2:1 FG-Labour government can become a 2:1 Labour-FG government in five years from now? It beggars belief.
The argument will be made that Labour has to go into government to protect its core supporters from right-wing savagery. But that’s an argument made in no other European country. An FG-Labour coalition is in neither party’s interest, nor the national interest.