Grand coalition starts to look achievable

Simon Coveney says he has ‘no ideological problem’ about going into partnership with Fianna Fáil, but would his party really jump into bed with its nemesis, asks Juno McEnroe

BROADCASTER Bill O’Herlihy once questioned whether it made sense for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to tussle for power when the width of a sheet of paper scarcely separated their policies.

More than a year later, and that prospect of a grand coalition between the Civil War protagonists now seems surprisingly conceivable, maybe even achievable.

Fine Gael minister Simon Coveney thinks so too.

In June 2010, Enda Kenny on the opposition benches made a cutting statement about Fianna Fáil as his party attempted to topple then taoiseach Brian Cowen during a no confidence motion.

“Brian Cowen is guilty of creating an economic disaster that will forever carry the logo ‘Made by Fianna Fáil’,” Mr Kenny told the Dáil chamber.

In the landmark speech, the Fine Gael leader criticised the “toxic triangle” that had existed between Fianna Fáil, developers, and bankers which had wrecked the economy.

Here we are a few years on and it seems senior Fine Gael figures are flirting with the idea of jumping into bed with the very condemned party they ran out of office at the last general election. Maybe ministers are willing to forgive those dirty little affairs.

The publication of Mr Coveney’s interview in this newspaper yesterday has raised eyebrows around Leinster House. The agriculture minister is not one for flippant remarks, especially as he is directing Fine Gael’s policy platform for the next general election.

In his candid comments though, he has opened the door for debate around whether Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil could and should share power.

Mr Coveney told the Irish Examiner Fine Gael would have to look at its options if the numbers to make up a government were not there with Labour after the next election. He said Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was “very competent” and he could work with the party in government.

“I don’t have any ideological problem with forming a coalition with Fianna Fáil. As long as we can hammer out a programme for government, that is something that Fine Gael can support.”

Mr Coveney is the second party minister to hint at a coalition with Fianna Fáil, after Health Minister Leo Varadkar said previously that such a partnership could work out.

Other politicians and commentators have also pondered the option.

Former Fine Gael adviser Frank Flannery last November said the two parties may have to think the unthinkable and merge after the next election.

“Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may end up with only enough support between them for one big party or substantial party,” he said at the time.

The strategist, reiterating Bill O’Herlihy’s comments at the annual Béal na mBláth commemoration, also said both parties were so alike. Voters had written the whole Civil War experience out of their thinking, he said.

Indeed, bookmakers also favour the two parties entering a coalition.

But what do others in either party think and how similar are Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s policies or ideologies in reality?

Fianna Fáil TDs were quick to shoot down Mr Coveney’s suggestion yesterday. Clare TD Timmy Dooley said he was against “propping” up the current government in the next Dáil while Mayo TD Dara Calleary later attacked Mr Coveney’s record in agriculture.

But other party TDs disagree. Public Accounts Committee chairman and Calow/Kilkenny TD John McGuinness has previously said it is time to put tribalism aside and that both parties must talk about a partnership after the next general election.

Fine Gael TDs were surprisingly mute yesterday after Mr Coveney’s remarks.

Cork TD Jerry Buttimer said Mr Martin was a “busted flush” while Kildare TD Martin Heydon said he would not support a partnership with Fianna Fáil.

But Mr Coveney is being straight up and realistic. On the present figures, it is impossible for any party in the State on its own to create a government.

Furthermore, despite a preference by Enda Kenny and his ministers for a second term with partners Labour, there is little or no hope of this happening without another party or group of TDs to form a Government.

It is widely acknowledged that Labour now face an almost insurmountable task of returning all their TDs.

So what would it be like with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in power together?

If it was just the two parties, there could be a rotating system of being taoiseach, though this could be difficult to agree.

Mr Coveney has acknowledged that putting together a programme for government would be challenging.

In Fianna Fáil’s pre-budget proposals, the party distanced itself from the Coalition’s voter-friendly tax cut proposals for workers.

Instead, Mr Martin wants to focus on restoring services, albeit there is some space there for PRSI refunds for the low paid and tax credits.

Instead of grand reductions in income taxes and the blunt application of the Universal Social Charge, Fianna Fáil say they want services to education, health and housing restored before any give-away budget.

This is one of the big differences separating the parties. Nonetheless, Fianna Fáil has not ruled out making those very changes Fine Gael are advocating for work related taxes down the line when the state’s finances are in an even healthier state.

Other smaller differences include the opposition’s proposals for an alcohol tax as well as a special levy on sugar drinks.

Otherwise, Fianna Fáil want to make changes, possibly even reductions, in water and property charges — but they have yet to say by how much.

It all remains a bit fluid, which suits politicians about to run for election.

Some would also point out that a deeper vein of nationalism or republicanism runs through Fianna Fáil supporters. Fine Gael figures, on the other hand, stress they’re unlikely to have done all the repair work on the economy only to share the rewards with Fianna Fáil. Furthermore, Enda Kenny wants a second consecutive term, which no Fine Gael taoiseach has ever had.

For the moment, we will watch the leaders of both parties tear strips out of each other as they tussle for power and control both in and outside the Dáil.

But mark Mr Coveney’s words about Fine Gael.

If they don’t make up the numbers with Labour, they’ll have to look at the options. And if only a sheet of paper separates the policies of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the writing is on the wall for their individual futures.


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