Gerard Howlin: Martin the weakest link in Leo’s newfound hunger for government

We will know in a few days how effective measures enforced since last Saturday have proven. Steps to keep us further apart are being considered to continue flattening the curve, writes Gerard Howlin.
Gerard Howlin: Martin the weakest link in Leo’s newfound hunger for government
Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar chat during a commercial break in the final TV leaders’ debate at the RTÉ studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. Picture: PA

We will know in a few days how effective measures enforced since last Saturday have proven.

Steps to keep us further apart are being considered to continue flattening the curve, writes Gerard Howlin.

It’s all our job to keep calm and carry on, probably for a long time.

Government formation is also at the end of the beginning. The shape of something is emerging.

Politics, like epidemiology, is a body count. Fianna Fáil + Fine Gael = 72 Dáil seats.

Eighty is a bare majority.

Fianna Fáil + Fine Gael + Regional Group of independent TDs = 81.

Fianna Fáil + Fine Gael + Regional Group + Labour = 87.

Subtract a defection or two and you still have a solid majority, if not a cohesive coalition.

One prediction I will make is that if this does happen, the Greens will never regret standing apart, and saying clearly that “we need a wider arc to embrace change”.

In 2016, there was an awful clatter for something called a grand coalition. It began before the count was complete and continued at a high pitch for weeks. It was Fianna Fáil’s duty, no less, to go into coalition with Fine Gael.

Fast-forward four years and the same tones of condescension are in full flow again, but this time directed against the Greens.

You’ll never lose money betting against the demand of the self-entitled for stable government, the better that they can start kicking it again.

The focus on Covid-19, a lack of any focus on politics, the emptying of party rooms, the corridors leading to them and hostelries not far away, has led to a vacuum.

It’s impossible to quantify, but obvious to see that power is temporarily concentrated not just in government on Covid-19 but within parties, in their leaders.

There is something 19th century, and the “great men” school of history, in the way so few are getting to decide so much. If it facilitates coalition making, it will excuse undermining it afterwards.

Within parties, internal dissenters have a readymade crib sheet from the get-go.

One giblet of economic gore today was the prediction from Goldman Sachs of a 24% decline in US economic activity next quarter, compared to its previous forecast of 5%.

Since equivalent measurements began, that will be the worst ever, if realised.

The previous US record for economic decline in a single quarter was 10% in the first quarter of 1958.

The strategic end of government formation, as the Greens rightly realise, isn’t getting a political construct together, but one that holds together to deliver effectively.

We went into 2020 with a, more or less, balanced budget.

Based on borrowing €30bn right now, for this crisis, we are looking at a deficit of 10% of GDP, and that’s a back-of-an-envelope guess.

The real question, the one the next budget decided on by the next government must decide on, is what the economy looks like in 2021 after the storm — presuming the storm has ended.

A benign view, looking a little less likely every day, is that as in 2014, facing a deficit of about 4% of GDP, we could take a steady-as-you-go approach in the belief that economic growth will close the gap over a number of years.

The politics of post-2014 is that public expectation ran far ahead of public spending. That — and broken promises — destroyed Labour and did in Fine Gael.

The luxury of being able to do little positive but avoid wholescale cuts is the nirvana for which a new government hopes.

The other big bet is what happens when the borrowing the ECB has bought as government bonds matures.

If it is sold on, out into the market, then we are potentially exposed to higher debt repayments and would find it more expensive to borrow further.

Alternatively, repayment might be asked for. It won’t be rolled over indefinitely.

For those celebrating social solidarity now, remember it is all money borrowed against the future. Our debts, like climate change, is what we will be remembered for.

With every week, if not every few days, government formation recalibrates. It was to include the Greens. Now it might encompass Labour. It was to be a five-year project, but I doubt that now.

In the weakest of all positions, Micheál Martin will, at the end, be cornered by Leo Varadkar who will explain simply that all is indeed agreed, and that he, as the incumbent, will lead Ireland on in this crisis, in the first instance.

The office of taoiseach will rotate to Martin afterwards. I doubt the bus will get to the roundabout to rotate but that will be for another day.

Labour, led by Alan Kelly — a combative politician if you can acquire the taste — will focus on defining his party, not oiling the wheels of coalition.

And Fine Gael has passed seamlessly, within weeks, from the languor of retirement to hunger for government. They are not focused on a five-year timeframe. They are looking at the next exit, to roll the electoral dice again. In that scenario, they, not Fianna Fáil, will be the victor on the middle ground.

Eventual outcomes are uncertain but what is clearer is that key parts of the government being envisaged see it as a tactical, not a strategic arrangement.

The only impenetrable barrier to the electoral exit is delivery of a Covid-19 vaccine.

An attempted election before a vaccine could alter the body count politically.

Changing all of this would be the strategic verve to bring in Sinn Féin. It would be as much a national government as needed. It would strengthen the edifice while it lasted and reduce the atmosphere of fear within it while it did.

However long it lasted, it would permanently change politics afterwards.

The failure of Fianna Fáil to change course, even as it faces a real prospect of its leader being tánaiste in a Fine Gael-led government, will afterwards be an addendum to the coroner’s report on its demise.

For Fine Gael, and Varadkar particularly, it would be coalition with a party it is not in competition with for a single vote, and radically rearrange politics as we approach the centenary of the State in 2022.

I believe, economic difficulties notwithstanding, but with its eye on the prize of being in government North and South, that Sinn Féin would go in.

That’s not a view I held a few weeks ago.

But all these are what-ifs. What’s what will be a lot more debt, some economic debris, and diminished prospects for a long time. Solidarity wears off quicker than a hangover.

Besides our new debt, and unchanged realities on health, housing, and climate will be diminished capacity to reimagine our mission and reconfigure the State.

Regrettably, I give the chances of success of the government formation being attempted a better than even chance of success.

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