Doubts about Fianna Fáil’s motives make Fine Gael wary, writes Political Reporter Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
As they slipped out of Leinster House after their parliamentary party meeting on Thursday night, one of Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s closest allies let the cat momentarily out of the bag.
Officially, the party is distraught at the prospect of Fine Gael continuing in power.
A lot of public hand-wringing has been done to emphasise the point, with newly elected TD Jack Chambers winning Thursday’s Dáil Oscar when he wailed about the dangers of voting Enda Kenny back into office.
But behind the fog of civil war, a very different message is circulating.
Stepping into the darkness after the parliamentary party meeting ended, the senior Fianna Fáil TD was asked what the atmosphere was like inside, considering the only issue up for discussion was outright defeat.
No bickering, feather-flying, or discontent — or, at least, not much — he insisted, before being asked jokingly if there had been any back-slapping or celebratory cigars due to persistent rumours Fianna Fáil are not as distressed with dodging power as they claim.
He feigned ignorance, began to walk away, then turned and with his trade-mark wink added: “Well, maybe a few brandies.”
While Fianna Fáil lost the taoiseach nomination and minority government battles, it believes it is winning the longer-term war. Right now, party elders feel they have Fine Gael exactly where they want them.
On paper, the past week has been a disaster for Micheál Martin’s followers.
Their man has lost out — again— to Enda Kenny, with Katherine Zappone’s vote seeing the gap stretch to 52-43.
His decision to put a gun to Independents’ heads, telling them to either back him now or forever hold their peace, led to that same gun backfiring and Independents scattering in all directions instead of adhering to his wishes.
And, worse still, he is being ridiculed by some for panicking when he had the chance at power before fumbling his prize straight into Mr Kenny’s waiting arms.
You know it’s a bad Friday for Fianna Fáil when Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams — who has happily stood on the sidelines since February 26 — can send out a statement criticising your leader for failing to take talks seriously, while Mr Martin has to meet to Enda Kenny to, bishop-like, kiss his ring.
But, as talks begin again between the two big beasts of Irish politics, is all really the way it seems?
Now a Fianna Fáil-led minority government is off the table, the only alternative to a second election is a Fine Gael-led minority government. And a pretty weak one at that, which at best will limp along for a couple of years before inevitably falling apart.
Such a government will also lean heavily on those same Independents Mr Martin rather oddly chased away on Wednesday, many of whom risk public anger if they prop up an unpopular party and who may not survive another vote — a fact Danny Healy-Rae alluded to last week when he claimed he “knows what they’re [bigger parties] up to”.
Staying in opposition would also allow Fianna Fáil to block Sinn Féin’s growth, while the entire possibility of a government still depends on whether Mr Martin’s party will sign a written deal to “facilitate” Fine Gael — a document demanded by Independents but which Fianna Fáil insist is only possible if it includes its own policies.
Suspicion surrounding what Fianna Fáil is really up to, in particular why, when faced with victory this week, it manoeuvred to lose, is one of the key undercurrents to the latest talks, 50 days on from the election. Just like it was one day on.
And while Fine Gael is aware of the issue, all possible escape routes are beset with difficulties — specifically the fact that if they pull out now or in a few months they face either a second Enda Kenny-led election or else one with the party at war.
Asked on RTÉ’s News at One yesterday if he trusts Fianna Fáil, the usually conciliatory Fine Gael acting Jobs Minister Richard Bruton paused, paused some more, then in a far from ringing endorsement said: “They’re a very professional organisation.”
Not exactly a yes, so.
The sense the most cunning party of them all is up to its old tricks is this weekend in the Leinster House air, and is crucial to why Fine Gael is so keen in upcoming talks to tie Fianna Fáil down to a full — not partial — written agreement on how long the next government will last.
Given the fact a senior Fianna Fáil TD told the Irish Examiner 30 minutes before Thursday’s vote his party’s recent actions have all been focussed on “fireproofing” for the next election, you can understand why.
Lose the battle, live to win the war.
The contentious issue of water charges and Irish Water are issues which could collapse any minority government.
Fianna Fáil promised to freeze charges and scrap the utility, while Fine Gael pledged charges are here to stay and a water utility is the best way forward.
Negotiating a compromise is key to agreeing a deal that will last.
The test would be sure to come from Sinn Féin and others who will hammer away at the propped-up minority government and try to divide the parties.
A new commission to examine the future of water bills or more subsidies for users to cancel out charges could help settle differences.
Such moves would postpone decisions for a minority government.
Fianna Fáil stressed a deal for supporting Enda Kenny’s minority administration would be based around the budget cycle. That’s what party negotiator Barry Cowen maintains.
A government would have to last at least two budgets, if not more. The Independent Alliance want a three-year budget cycle in any deal.
A reformed budget process will lead to more transparent spending, for housing, health or other issues. But that takes co-operation.
Any break down in budget preparation, this year or next, would see a disgruntled side jumping ship. Discipline will be key in voting through spending measures, whether they be for services or tax cuts, especially if a minority government can last a full five-year term.
Enda Kenny needs at least 58 votes in the Dáil to be elected Taoiseach — once Fianna Fáil agree to abstain.
This is the magic number.
Thursday’s vote saw him get 52, with two Independents backing him. He is now in the hunt for at least another six votes.
Micheál Martin is adamant Mr Kenny needs to reach 58, if Fianna Fáil allow him to be elected. But negotiators on both sides concede extra TDs will be needed, possibly bringing support to 60 for Mr Kenny.
This is, to guard against any going overboard.
There is disagreement on whether any deal should be an official document.
Acting Transport minister Paschal Donohoe said yesterday that a written deal between the two parties is “an absolute must”. Fianna Fáil are less enthusiastic about “signing the contract”.
Clare TD Timmy Dooley said there were mixed views in the party.
Other party figures point to the 1987 Tallaght Strategy, a government support deal struck between the old adversaries, which worked on a case-by-case basis.
There is no schedule for another vote, the fourth, when the Dáil returns next Wednesday.
This would allow those negotiating some breathing space and to argue that talks may take another week.
It is surely the case, though, that if Mr Kenny cannot get the required numbers at the next vote, that he will face pressure to ‘go to the Park’ and seek the dissolution of the Dáil.
A further failed attempt at electing a taoiseach could very well trigger another general election.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved