Recent crises far more than storm in a teacup for creaking minority coalition

A year on from the last general election the ramshackle minority government continues to stumble from one damaging controversy to the next, writes Elaine Loughlin.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and then tánaiste Joan Burton on the eve of last year's general election, when both parties haemorrhaged votes.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and then tánaiste Joan Burton on the eve of last year's general election, when both parties haemorrhaged votes.

FEBRUARY 27, 2016, was the day Fine Gael’s electoral nightmare was realised. As ballot box after ballot box was opened, more bad news tumbled out.

Exactly a year later and another election seems only a breath away, because Enda Kenny’s party has engaged in internal leadership spats, has continuously quarrelled with its Independent partners, and has failed to implement significant change. The creaking minority coalition, with its reliance on Fianna Fáil, is stagnating the working of government.

If an election was to be called in the morning, Fine Gael’s support would undoubtedly slide further. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin would claw more seats from them.

While Mr Kenny and his cohorts have nothing major to shout about — the country is still suffering from lengthy hospital waiting lists, a housing crisis, industrial strife at Bus Éireann, a garda whistleblower scandal, and bracing itself for Brexit — this time last year there were doubts over whether a government could be formed at all. Many then questioned whether, after a shaky start and protracted formation talks, it could possibly last.

On February 25, 2016, the eve of the election, Enda Kenny met then Labour leader, Joan Burton, in Dublin’s shiny docklands, at a hipster cafe.

Blissfully unaware that both parties would haemorrhage votes and elected members in the next 48 hours, they sipped tea and spouted the line that the Fine Gael-Labour coalition was the only viable option.

Ms Bruton now sits — stripped of the party leader title — on the lonely opposition benches, while Mr Kenny is nearing the end of his own party’s leadership.

From the opposition benches, Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin pulls many of the strings and increasingly can be seen smiling over at Mr Kenny’s seat, eyeing it up.

Someone else biding their time is Mary-Lou McDonald, currently stunted by Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams. But McDonald, the deputy leader, surely sees her party growing with her at the helm.

Election 2016 also saw a clatter of new, mainly Independent, faces joining the opposition ranks, while the AAA-PBP swelled in numbers and the Green Party were welcomed back, claiming two seats in the Dáil chamber.

While Lucinda Creighton’s Renua party failed to win a single seat, the other newly-formed group, the Social Democrats, secured three seats, but, by September, Stephen Donnelly had quit the party he had helped to form.

Lucinda Creighton

As the tallies began to come in this day a year ago, it became clear that something had gone drastically wrong for Fine Gael.

Mr Kenny’s party had lost the centre — both geographically and poetically speaking — of Ireland, which had traditionally been the heart of their support.

Large swathes of voters down the middle of the county, and on into Munster, who, historically, would have ticked the FG box, simply didn’t.

In Tipperary, two Fine Gael TDs — one of them a minister of state — were not re-elected. While the constituency boundary changes in Tipperary might have shuffled the votes around somewhat, they did not explain why then junior agriculture minister, Tom Hayes, and his well-established colleague, Noel Coonan, failed to win a seat.

A clatter of other high-profile Fine Gael members were kicked out, including ministers James Reilly, Jimmy Deenihan, and Alan Shatter.

The tide was out and the Keep the Recovery Going campaign, which the Fine Gael strategy gurus insisted on clinging onto, fell flat down the spine of the country.

In places like Longford, Athlone, Tullamore, and Thurles, the recovery hadn’t even arrived, so how could it have kept going? The only place any recovery was going was straight past the people of rural and middle Ireland.

Fine Gael massively misjudged the moment.

Many of the successes were ‘by the skin of their teeth’ wins, such as in Wexford, where Michael D’Arcy and Paul Kehoe took the final two seats, and likewise in Louth, where Fergus O’Dowd and Peter Fitzpatrick claimed the last two places.

In the end, Fine Gael came back with 50 seats — 26 fewer than it secured in the 2011 general election. On the flip-side, Fianna Fáil boosted their numbers by 24, returning 44 TDs.

Since then, Fine Gael have consigned their Keep the Recovery Going slogan to a dark cupboard, never to be opened again — apart from when members of the opposition try to prise it ajar.

After limping through the election, Fine Gael began courting smaller parties and Independents to form a government. Fianna Fáil also made half-hearted attempts to form their own minority government.

The Lannigan’s Ball continued for more than 70 days, with the party vying for the support of the odd collection of Independents that stepped in and out of Government Buildings, as Enda Kenny played the part of squatter Taoiseach.

As spring edged to a close, the Confidence in Supply agreement was initiated in the privacy of Fianna Fáil TD, Jim O’Callaghan’s kitchen, before the political enemies moved to the more neutral territory of the provost’s house in Trinity College.

Government was finally formed on May 6, 2016.

Since then, the minority government has clung on, but that has been more because of Fianna Fáil’s aversion to going back to the people than because of anything Fine Gael and the Independents have done.

The Government seems to have done almost everything in its capacity to bring on an election rather than stave one off.

Sharing power with a group of Independents was never going to be easy, but bring Shane Ross into the equation and it adds another dimension entirely.

Mr Ross had an uncomfortable bedding-in period.

The transport minister clashed with Fine Gael on a number of issues — among them abortion and judicial appointments — just as they were getting to know each other.

John Halligan also weighed in, and disagreements over water charges, as well as a second cath lab for Waterford Hospital, ensued.

Still, the Government managed to trundle on.

With five members of the one so-called alliance each prioritising issues as diverse as flooding; judicial appointments; services for a regional hospital; the Stardust tragedy and rural roads, it’s a miracle they have stayed together, let alone held up the Government.

While the Independent Alliance bickered and bellowed, both with themselves and with Fine Gael, the two other Independent ministers, Denis Naughten and Katherine Zappone, exercised restraint.

That was until recently, when Ms Zappone, who had remained loyal to Mr Kenny from the very beginning, dealt an almost fatal blow to the Taoiseach and to the Government itself.

The scandal centred around false allegations of child sex abuse contained in a Tusla file on Sergeant Maurice McCabe. It ended with the extraordinary act of the Taoiseach standing up in the Dáil and admitting he was “guilty” of putting out a wrong account of discussions with Ms Zappone.

Maurice McCabe

Governments have fallen on far lesser issues and for a few frantic days his now famous ‘mea culpa’ speech and the he-said-she-said antics that led up to, and indeed followed it, put the Government on the brink of election.

The McCabe scandal showed just how weak the current Government is and how lucky it has been to survive the past year.

But an election is not something that Fine Gael would either want or need right now.

While Fine Gael uncomfortably try to balance power with the Independents and Fianna Fáil, other parties have been quietly building from opposition.

Labour, for example, has already developed a concrete strategy, ready to be rolled-out in the event of a snap election, and is to hold selection conventions in five constituencies in the coming weeks.

Other parties are sure to be involved in the same quiet campaigning — Fianna Fáil members have been told by headquarters to be out and about and ramping-up activity in their constituencies.

Fine Gael, on the other hand, don’t even know who will be leading them into a general election.

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