Labouring over election call — sometimes the trick is there is no trick

An early election would be a big risk for Fine Gael, but an even bigger one for Labour, writes Gerard Howlin

Labouring over election call — sometimes the trick is there is no trick

The more divided the opposition, the stronger the position for the largest party in the next Dáil. This will almost certainly be Fine Gael. A slow, sustained recovery for the Government parties coupled with at least three emerging alternatives from what are generically called ‘independents’ means that even if shy of an overall majority, Fine Gael and Labour would more likely be able to find the numbers to form another government. The fact that there may be several smaller blocs to do business with, gives the government advantages. Firstly if each of the new groupings enjoys some electoral success, none will hold the balance of power, or the whip hand. Secondly by being groupings of some cohesion, they offer the possibility of a deal that sticks.

This developing political landscape, together with modestly increased support for the Government means that, after an inauspicious interval, it again has a possibility of re-election. Taoiseach Enda Kenny, more than anyone understands the historical significance. The longest-serving TD in the Dáil he followed three Fine Gael taoisaigh - Liam Cosgrave in 1977, Garret FitzGerald in 1982 and 1987 and John Bruton in 1997 - into opposition after only one term. For him, the Holy Grail is re-election. It would be vindication, after a political lifetime characterised by underestimation, or even denigration; and would make him the most successful leader of his party ever.

That this is possible does not mean it will happen. Events, timing, and judgement must all be aligned. Failure to deliver even one of those requirements will scupper what is possible. I have a vivid memory of being in the late Chief Whip Séamus Brennan’s office outside the Dáil chamber, preparing for what would be nearly the last Leader’s Questions before the 2002 election. Turning on one of his colleagues who was less than sharply focused in his rehearsal of a live issue, Brennan warned: “Don’t f*** up the landing”. A successful landing is by far the most challenging political manoeuvre for any government. Ultimate responsibility rests with the Taoiseach. The judgements he makes will either realise what is politically possible, or not.

The three emerging groupings are: Lucinda Creighton’s Renua; a budding centre-left offering, possibly comprising Catherine Murphy, Róisín Shortall, Stephen Donnelly and Katherine Zappone; and an alliance of independents stewarded by Shane Ross and Michael Fitzmaurice. This does not take account of other stalwart independents such as Michael Healy Rae, Mattie McGrath and Michael Lowry. There are 166 seats in this Dáil, there will be 158 in the next — 79 is a working majority. On their combined current poll numbers, the Maynooth academic, Adrian Kavanagh, puts the Government parties on 64 seats. A further modest rise in the polls, means they are possibly in business again. A recovering economy, falling unemployment and mortgage arrears mean the fundamentals are going their way. What they need now, is more time, considerable skill and some luck.

Of course Kenny won’t be the only one making political judgements. Both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin will be significantly enhanced forces in the next Dáil. Fianna Fáil may not be winning in the media, but it has a base of councillors and candidates to realise the seat potential of its vote, which it conspicuously failed to do in 2011. Even if Sinn Féin fail to realise its opinion poll rating in actual votes, it will still be a much bigger party. There is reason to think, however, that neither really wants the responsibility of government soon. For either, going into government as a junior partner would arrest the recovery of one and the potential of the other. Barring unforeseeable events, Fianna Fáil will not be bigger than Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin will not be bigger than Fianna Fáil. For both, another term in opposition will likely be required to realise their respective long-term ambitions. For Fianna Fáil that is to rebuild on the basis of a largely new parliamentary party, untainted by the economic collapse. For Sinn Féin that is to either be the largest single party, or at least a much larger party in a government that is fundamentally more sympathetic to them in its makeup.

Events are notoriously difficult to predict. There is every sign that Leo Varadkar and Kathleen Lynch have successfully delivered on free GP care for the under-6s. Even if it’s anaemic compared to the scale of change promised by the Government on coming into office, it is tangible. And of course James Reilly the author of what were far larger but now long-fingered reforms in Health is side-lined. The more plausible Varadkar may be delivering less, but he is doing it credibly. And here timing — as well as judgement — come into play. What would a long winter in a stretched hospital system do for either that minister’s credibility or the Government’s standing? The single most important strategic decision facing the Taoiseach, is when to call the next election. He can do so after the October budget, which effectively means a date in November, or he can wait until the spring.

The first foreseeable event to be negotiated is publication of the Fennelly report into the resignation of the former Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan. The nub of the issue is whether he voluntarily resigned or was inappropriately pushed by Kenny. Even if Callinan felt the ground moving beneath his feet, that doesn’t amount to being fired. If Fennelly produces an adverse finding against Kenny, who effectively ended Alan Shatter’s cabinet career, he could hardly stay on himself. If he attempted to, the pressure on Labour would be immense. But for now, it’s all a what-if. And there is a very high bar to be jumped between here and any adverse finding. The Budget in October will be the last before an election. The purse strings have been loosened, and the vice of political pressure is lubricating the virtue of fiscal prudence.

It is a constitutional fact that Kenny has complete discretion on the timing of an election. In reality were he to call an election without the assent of Joan Bruton and Labour he would be playing Russian roulette. The whole basis of his political offering is determination, competence, and in his terms at least, putting the public good before political opportunity. Calling an election after the Budget — crudely capitalising on palming people with their own money — where Labour are not willing partners, would expose him to the charge of being a cynical shyster. It would debilitate, if not destroy the brand. This issue then is this. If Fine Gael is minded to move after the Budget; is Labour? An early election would be a big risk for Fine Gael, but an even bigger one for Labour. Their best hope is time. And of course there is another option. Do what you always said you would, and go the whole way. Sometime the trick is, there is no trick.

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