Whether Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar can convince and cajole any of the smaller parties into government remains a tall order but is not impossible, writes Political Editor.
It has been 72 days since the country went to the polls on February 8 and a government is still a long way from being formed.
Despite the incredibly fractured political landscape thrown up by the results, one inescapable fact has remained unchanged.
For a stable government to be formed, two of the three largest groupings in the Dáil (Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) would have to come together.
Fine Gael under Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil under Micheál Martin have consistently ruled out any suggestion of entering power with Mary Lou McDonald’s resurgent party.
As a result, both Varadkar and Martin have had to abandon their stance that they would not do a deal with each other.
Driven by pure political pragmatism, the two parties, sworn enemies for a century, have sought to finally consign civil war politics to the past.
After seven weeks of stop-start talks, the parties produced their “highly aspirational” joint policy paper which they hope will be enough to attract one or more of the smaller parties into government with them.
Varadkar has made it clear that unless that third wheel is present, then
his party too will not be
Varadkar said any new government would need a third party to give it “legitimacy and authority”.
“I’m firmly of the view, that if Fine Gael is going to participate in the next government, we need a third party. We can absolutely work with independents as we did for the past four years, and very successfully,” he said.
“But a government that relies on nine or 10 independents, support for the government on every crucial vote isn’t one that’s going to be stable isn’t one that will be able to make the tough decisions and hard calls that have to be made in the next couple of years isn’t one that will last until 2024 or 2025.
If Fine Gael is to participate in the next government, we will have to have a third party in there to make sure that we have the numbers and also I think the broad base that’s needed to guide the country through the next couple of years.” the Taoiseach said.
While the signing of the document is in its own right historic, it could all come to nothing if a government cannot be formed, so what chance is there of that happening?
Well, between them, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil can muster 72 seats, eight shy of the magic number of 80 which is required for a majority.
But as several ministers and leading Fianna Fáil TDs have said, getting to 80 will not be enough, given the drastic and difficult decisions which any new government will need to make in order to rescue the country from recession.
Senior sources in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have said they ideally would like to have over 90 TDs on board to ensure any government would last a full term.
“Of course we will need around 90 seats, we are back in 2011 territory in terms of the decisions that will need to be taken,” one minister told me.
Firstly, having ruled out Sinn Féin, the Taoiseach’s insistence that a third party be involved has put the focus on the Green Party, Labour and the Social Democrats in particular.
Looking solely at the maths of the situation, the Greens with their 12 seats are an attractive option. But concerns are mounting about how solid an outfit they are amid obvious signs of growing pains and Eamon Ryan looking increasingly shaky in his position as leader.
For Labour and the Social Democrats, given their small size of just six seats each, the risks of entering government are plain to see but they might find the temptation of ministerial office too much to resist.
If one or both Labour and the Social Democrats, the government is also likely to turn to a number of independents to shore up the numbers.
Since the election result became clear in February, the so-called Regional Independent Group have made it known of their willingness to be considered for high office.
“Some of those like Denis Naughten, Sean Canney and Michael Lowry are former ministers or current ministers who know what government is like. Once bought they’ll stay bought and be rock solid. Such a scenario is attractive to both Leo and Micheál if they are to make this work,” said one minister.
For his part, Lowry has said a group of 12 like-minded Independents stand ready to help form a government if they are needed.
Lowry said it looks like they might not be needed, as he expects a “grand super coalition” of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Greens to be formed.
However, he said should that not materialise, a dozen or so Independents who have been in talks are ready to act to form a government. Lowry said that, from his point of view, it would be supporting a government from opposition and insisted he would not “be coming with a shopping list”.
“That is not how I do my business,” he said. “I would act to help form a sustainable government from the opposition benches. There are about 12 independent TDs [that] stand ready to act in the national interest if required. But I don’t see us being needed as things stand.” While a major hurdle was overcome last week, several more will have to be overcome if a second general election is to be avoided.
Ultimately, whether Martin and Varadkar can convince and cajole any of the smaller parties into government remains a tall ask but is not impossible.
The one thing it won’t be is quick.
The Green Party
For more than two years in the run-up to the February General Election, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan made it clear to all and anyone who would listen that he and his party were ready to enter government with anybody. But since then, with the influx of nine new TDs, Ryan’s control over his party has undoubtedly been undermined.
The likes of Neasa Hourigan, Roderic O’Gorman and Ossian Smith have asserted themselves and are far less gung-ho about jumping into bed with the likes of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Since the advent of the Covid-19 crisis, against Ryan’s preference, the Greens have advocated the idea of a national unity government including Sinn Féin, but this has been vetoed by Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin.
Following the publication of the joint policy document from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the Greens met to discuss it.
What was immediately clear was that the Greens are not at one as what to do.
“We have different views, that’s a healthy thing in the party, and we’re trying to get consensus, but we’re still working well together,” Ryan told reporters on Thursday.
The party has had a tumultuous few weeks in the press, with persistent rumours that the party is split on government formation, with the newly elected TDs voicing their concerns about entering any coalition with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
But despite these issues and concerns about their fitness for office, the bloc of 12 votes is undoubtedly an attraction to the two larger parties as it would bring them to 84 Dáil seats, well over the majority mark of 80 seats.
The feeling is that Trying to maintain discipline would be easier with such a bloc of votes as opposed to a large group or two groups of independent TDs, who would each have their own individual demands.
Following their meeting, Ryan said their involvement in any government talks would be predicated on detailed commitments from the other parties on reducing the country’s carbon emissions, a signal to some that the Greens are positioning themselves out of the formation talks.
In their favour, their size and the weakness of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil means if they play their cards right, the Greens could drive a hard bargain and demand a high price in terms of Cabinet seats, junior ministries and other goodies.
New Labour leader Alan Kelly on his election stated that his party were not to be considered in the mix for government formation, saying it was up to others to try and put a coalition together. He cited that three parties got more of a mandate than his party.
He cited his party’s lack of critical mass in terms of seat numbers as well as a need for Labour to get back to basics and reconnect with its disaffected base.
He pledged to make Labour “sexy again.” The feeling was you can’t do that from within government, especially in a time of recession.
You certainly can’t do that when you are the third or fourth wheel in a coalition, where your agenda is so far down the pecking order.
Kelly was also quick out of the traps to cast doubt over the joint document agreed by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
“It is clear from first reading that this is an un-costed, purely aspirational document, that will require detailed scrutiny. It fails to mention any concrete timelines or when any of the mooted ideas would be delivered,” he said.
But he did not close the door fully.
“I welcome that in both parties coming together to draft this document, that they have come around to a different way of thinking on a new social contract and other social democratic policies,” he said.
The closer than expected margin of victory over his rival Aodhán O Ríordáin in the leadership race has in some people’s minds weakened Kelly’s hold over his party so even if he personally wants to go in, the question is whether he can convince his colleagues in with him.
Kelly is deeply ambitious and has made his views on power being a drug well known in the past.
No matter what the potential toll on the party could be, there is a big part of Kelly and his supporters who are more than ready to be considered as ministers, in the national interest of course.
Along with Sinn Féin and the Greens, the Social Democrats had a very good General Election, trebling its Dáil seats from two to six.
Even in their wildest dreams the party never expected to do that well and were clear beneficiaries from Sinn Féin’s failure to run enough candidates.
With their co-leaders Roisin Shortall and Catherine Murphy closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, the veteran politicians have never had a better opportunity to sit at Cabinet, even it is to be their swansong.
Shortall’s pet project of Slaintecare has achieved political consensus and it will be one of the major bodies of work for any incoming government.
Yet, so far, the party has managed to orchestrate itself out of immediate contention, cancelling a meeting with Fine Gael over what it called Varadkar’s political gameplaying.
According to the bigger parties, Shortall is seen as an awkward personality who could be troublesome to work with in any government.
Internal relations are also not said to be totally harmonious with Gary Gannon not keeping in line with the wishes of his senior colleagues on occasion.
While Shortall and Murphy have certainly given the strong impression government is not for them, not all in the party have shared that view.
New Cork South-West TD Holly Cairns, Cork’s only female TD, said the Covid-19 crisis has changed everything and that contacts with other parties are happening.
“To a certain extent, people are saying that everybody has to step up for the country so we are in contact with other party leaders regarding the crisis and potential solutions,” she said.
“We also think it’s important to make decisions in a way that is not a knee jerk reaction,” she told the Irish Examiner’s Mick Clifford.
The party gave a less than enthusiastic welcome to the joint Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael document released last Wednesday.
Murphy asked how promises not delivered at a time of surplus could now be generated in a time of dire fiscal retreat, without explicitly ruling out membership of the proposed government.
Gannon said he was “underwhelmed” by a paper that failed to offer targets or even to solid commitments. It had been portrayed as a panacea, but was “extraordinarily vague,” he said. It was not radical, not believable, and not enough for him, but he’s only one member.
A group of nine TDs which includes Denis Naughten, Seán Canney, Michael Lowry, Verona Murphy, Noel Grealish, Peter Fitzpatrick, Peadar Tóibín, Matt Shanahan and Cathal Berry. Without question this group is hotly tipped to be in the mix come the business end of proceedings or at least a majority of them. While it is clear Tóibín will find it difficult to be part of any government involving Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and he is likely to drop out, others like Naughten and Canney have barely hid their desire to be back in government. It is likely that Lowry and Grealish (who has been in constant contact with Varadkar and Martin since the election) would not seek ministerial office but support government from the opposition benches.
TDs Mattie McGrath, Michael Healy-Rae, Danny Healy-Rae, Carol Nolan, Richard O’Donoghue and Michael Collins, social conservatives, in the last Dáil, several of this group were behind some of the most blatant filibusters on then Transport Minister Shane Ross’ drink driving legislation. The chances of them being included are slim, reflected in the lack of meetings they have held with the parties. Seen as “too flakey, too unreliable, and simply too bonkers” to be considered by Fine Gael in particular.
A third group of independents have been referred to informally as the Independent group. Includes Joan Collins, Catherine Connolly, Thomas Pringle, Marian Harkin, Michael McNamara and Michael Fitzmaurice. Senior sources in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have talked up the chances of Harkin and Fitzmaurice in particular playing a role in government, if they are needed.
Harkin, the former MEP is highly regarded by both big parties, who recognise her political potency, and Fitzmaurice was involved in the 2016 formation talks, before he bowed out at the final hurdle, but is seen as someone who they can do business with.
McNamara, the former Labour TD is another who could be tempted into ministerial office, even at junior level and is seen a credible operator.