Labour leader Alan Kelly insists his party would do better in opposition. That raises the pressure on Eamon Ryan to enter government, says Political Editor
After Fine Gael’s election drubbing of 2016, few people did more work to scramble to keep the party in power than Simon Coveney.
Unlike his current leader, Leo Varadkar, who cut a disinterested and hostile figure in the government formation talks, Coveney sought to be inclusive and friendly.
And in contrast to the usual Fine Gael arrogance or to the high-handedness that typified the Enda Kenny regime — witness independents John Halligan and Finian McGrath, who ended up becoming ministers, and Michael Fitzmaurice, who fell at the final hurdle — Coveney went above and beyond, repeatedly, to make it work.
Yesterday, the Cork South Central-based Tánaiste was at it again.
Following Alan Kelly’s election as Labour’s 13th leader, late on Friday night, all eyes were on the Portroe man as to whether he would go into government or not.
Despite Kelly’s predecessor, Brendan Howlin, saying that the party was not prepared to enter talks, as it did not get a mandate to do so, with just six seats, there has been a growing sense that, under Kelly, that position could shift.
Remember, Kelly is the former minister who famously said: “Power is a drug.”
The sense from both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who have been engaged in talks for several weeks now and who are close to agreeing a joint policy document, is that the Labour door is not closed.
But on Saturday, Kelly hinted that it is for others to form a government.Yesterday, he appeared on RTE’s Morning Ireland and said the Labour Party was not looking to enter government, but that it could support a government from opposition. Kelly said Labour does not expect to enter a new coalition, although his party would “talk to anybody.”
“We will talk to anybody who wants to talk to us: it is the appropriate thing to do at this time. But I don’t believe we will be in a position to go into coalition,” he said. “There are four large parties, any three of which could form a government. It is up to them to do so.”
Kelly said he is disappointed that the Green Party, “with their large mandate,” are “not willing to put their shoulder to the wheel.”
When asked if the Labour party would participate in a confidence-and-supply agreement with a new government, Kelly said that a document is due to be sent to all political parties this week and that his party would consider it before responding.
Kelly said he wants to put forward the Labour party’s vision, “to show that we are different to all the other parties.”
He said there is a need for a strong majority government: “That’s what the four (other political parties) should be doing.”
There is also a need for a strong opposition: that is critical. A majority government will have to make difficult decisions and a strong opposition is needed to challenge those decisions, he said.
The attraction of the Labour Party is that they have previously served in government with both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and would understand what is required.
That attraction has heightened since the Green Party all but talked itself out of government.
The internal dymanics of the Greens, nominally led by Eamon Ryan, are fascinating.
For up to two years before February’s general election, Ryan had made it clear to anyone who would listen that he wanted to be in power.
However, since February 8, when his party won 12 seats, power has shifted within the party and Neasa Hourigan and Roderic O’Gorman have been able to put a halt to Ryan’s gallop.
Opposed to joining up with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, they have strongly argued for the creation of a national government to combat the Covid-19 crisis, but this idea has been repeatedly rejected as unworkable by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin.
Twice now, the Green Party has eschewed the advances of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, but is that about to change, after Kelly’s comments yesterday?
Kelly left the door open to a ‘confidence-and-supply’ deal that would see his party facilitate a government from the opposition benches.
Were Labour to abstain, a new government would need 74 votes for a Dáil majority and not the 80 needed at present.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have 72 between them and so would need the support of just two more TDs to form a government, but his type of scenario, while possible, is seen as too risky and unstable for what the country needs right now.
Coveney took to the airwaves a short while after Kelly yesterday and set out his stall. He said the document between his party and Fianna Fáil is a template for a strong and stable government, capable of lasting up to four years.
Less than 70 days since his party leader described Fianna Fáil members as “backswoodsmen,” Coveney was at pains to say the two parties are close to a deal, which they hope to sell to other parties.
As I reported last Saturday, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are set to “love-bomb” the Green Party in the coming days to convince them to enter government with them. Sources in both parties have said that the Green Party, with its 12 TDs, is a more viable option than relying on a large group of Independents.
Coveney also said that he would engage with the Social Democrats and the Labour Party on the same document, even though their present stance is to stay out: “Certainly, I think it’s possible for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, working with independents and independent groups, to form a majority. But that is not the kind of government that we are looking to create.”
“We want to try to include other political parties, outside of those two parties, as well. That’s why we have focused on trying to put a framework document together, which I think will certainly attempt to persuade parties, like the Green Party and the Social democrats and the Labour Party, that, actually, politics is going to be different,” the Tánaiste said.
The refusal to deal with Sinn Féin aside, Coveney is correct to try to cajole as many of the other parties into government, because failure to form a government means a second general election, which the country could well do without.
Kelly’s refusal to play ball, for now, means focus again shifts back onto the Green Party.
Whether there are enough ‘carrots’ in the joint document to entice them to play remains to be seen.
Rather than ruling themselves out of the game, the time has come for the Greens and the Social Democrats to grow up and stand up to be counted.