Gerard Howlin: A government with SF would be practical and transformative

The only thing intact is foreign direct investment and a requirement to form a government, writes Gerard Howlin
Gerard Howlin: A government with SF would be practical and transformative
Ironically the least appealing option for Micheál Martin would take a ‘rotating Taoiseach’ off the table. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The only thing intact is foreign direct investment and a requirement to form a government, writes Gerard Howlin

Talks on government formation will continue on a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael axis until refined by success or failure.

Success means the status quo, but at much slower speeds. This is an outcome of the country being broke again.

Regardless of what it signed up for in the framework document with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael especially has not jettisoned what it stands for.

That document is a honey trap, but it might be sufficient to get a government together. That’s up to the Greens and Labour for now.

A programme for government can agree a change of emphasis. It cannot deliver a fundamental change in direction without resources. Paschal Donohoe’s report to cabinet yesterday admitted as much.

There is only one issue for an incoming government; economic survival. Survival in the context of Covid-19 is one thing, and Brexit looms large again.

A decision on an extension to existing negotiations must be agreed by the next EU summit in June, to be actioned by July 1. If not, there must be a deal, or no-deal by December 31.

Either way, it is a pressing reality.

Realignment of how multinationals are taxed, and where, will be agreed later this year too. The status quo is the sweetest spot for Ireland but is unsustainable.

When the wreckage is cleared, the only thing intact, for now, is foreign direct investment and a requirement to form a government eventually.

If economic reality blackens by the day, every cloud has a silver lining. There is some sunshine for Fianna Fáil as the relative position of Fine Gael weakens a little.

Leo Varadkar’s star was ascendant after the Covid-19 crisis broke, as it was on the back of Brexit. But the Taoiseach is not a lucky general.

Brexit ebbed away in the public mind before February 8. Kudos for Covid-19 will be over before Fine Gael get to the polls again. 

However, hypothetical as it was, the threat of a second election was deeply feared by Fianna Fáil, Greens, and Independents.

Sinn Féin and Fine Gael might have profited but now it’s impossible for months, and probably until next year.

That leaves only two certainties.

Assuming Fine Gael will not go into coalition with Sinn Féin, no government is possible without Fianna Fáil, and a general election is impossible for now.

Those are the boundaries of the cliff edges on either side of a narrow path forward.

It will take only one of the Greens, Labour, or Social Democrats to agree, to facilitate government formation.

I mention the Social Democrats because while apparently the least likely to go in, Róisín Shortall has to decide whether she wants to be known for leaving the Department of Health or leading it. The last big move of long-serving politicians can sometimes be surprising.

Labour’s new leader, Alan Kelly, is unusually reticent. He will wait on events for as long as possible and make a judgment on what, in the circumstances then, he can leverage, and whether he can bring his party with him.

The argument for Labour going in, is that with six seats, they have as much chance of holding their own in government as out of it. Its trade union friends desperately want Labour in, to replay their old relevance.

Kelly is the first non-lovey leader of Labour since Frank Cluskey. Unlike Cluskey in 1982, his instinct is for government. But he won’t split his party and, for now at least, Labour is not going in.

The Greens have most to lose with 12 TDs and two senators. Abroad they see Greens elsewhere, especially in Germany making electoral strides.

That translates into more Green influence in Brussels, especially if their German colleagues enter the Federal Government next year.

Going into government here, however, without resources to deliver on climate change, while leaving themselves exposed to Sinn Féin in opposition, is a high price for modest returns and a short shelf life politically.

The first to turn on them mercilessly will be the opinionated, who excoriate their caution now.

On the ground Sinn Féin and the rural independents not in government will finish off the job.

Green supporters are middle-class people who believe in their own agency. One Sinn Féin correspondent on social media mischievously called them ‘green-fingered blue-shirts’. That is naughty.

But the underlying point is that they weren’t voted in to sit it out.

The Greens have excelled at policy-making, but fared poorly at political management. The choice now is now between:

■ A government that doesn’t share their values, in an economy that can at best only partly deliver on their objectives, in circumstances where their opponents are positioned for the kill from the get-go;

Or:

■ To hold their nerve, allow these talks to fail, and in circumstances where there cannot be an election but there must be a government, Sinn Féin is finally brought into play on government formation.

On this, either the Greens crack first and Micheál Martin gets his preferred option of a Sinn Féin-free government, or they hold and Fianna Fáil then does what it must, which is make the only deal which remains possible.

That move-on would be transformative not just for the Greens, it would be more appealing for the Social Democrats and Labour.

Having left incriminating evidence of its willingness to agree to anything, regardless of its actual intentions, Fine Gael could go into opposition, regroup, and explain what it really meant all along.

Ironically this apparently least appealing option for Martin, takes a “rotating Taoiseach” off the table. He can stay in office as long as his party allows. On that, he has survived the worst. 

Muttered expletives aside, barely a handful of his colleagues stood up to him. The lock-down and the possibility of gravy with dinner for some pacified the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party.

The U-turn required on Sinn Féin is simply explained by the fact that this least wanted of all outcomes is necessitated by the failure of all other options.

If, like Martin, you are deeply concerned by the prospect of Sinn Féin in government, then who better to lead it than the man whose concerns surpass your own?

A government including Sinn Féin would be transformative, and practical.

It allows Fianna Fáil and the Greens the chance of an afterlife. That dinner need not be a last meal on death row.

It would permanently normalise Sinn Féin in circumstances where few of its promises are deliverable.

That nationalist party will go into government, and jettison whatever baggage is required, to embed eventual unity as a core part of government planning in Dublin now.

Do I think this will be the eventual outcome of government formation?

For now no. But if what is planned now fails, it will materialise as a final option if Fine Gael doesn’t buckle again and go in without a third party anyway.

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