Second election looming as Micheál Martin spurns Enda Kenny in ‘national interest’

Fine Gael leader blasts civil war rival for rejecting offer of coalition, writes Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe

A LOT can happen in politics in a week, it is said. What about just 24 hours?

Acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny played his ace card this week, offering his political opponent, Micheál Martin, the tantalising but difficult proposition of going into a partnership government together. Less than 24 hours later, the Fianna Fáil leader shot down the shock offer.

The two had finally held the long-awaited face-to-face talks. A day later, it looks like schoolyard tactics are being deployed again. More worryingly, the likelihood of a second general election is now strong.

Mr Martin, not surprisingly, faced an anxious but resolute meeting of his parliamentary party yesterday morning at Leinster House. He went through details of the previous evening’s offer from Mr Kenny, listening to his worried TDs and senators, who overnight had heard of the surprise coalition proposal.

However, word spread quickly that only a small cohort of TDs would even consider joining a Fine Gael government. Speaker after speaker at the private meeting warned of the consequences of aligning themselves with the old enemy, especially after promising the electorate they would not.

Members trashed out different options facing Fianna Fáil, analysing the meeting between Mr Martin and Mr Kenny. Sources said Mr Kenny had told Mr Martin the “civil war was over”.

News of the offer, seen as a clever manoeuvre by Mr Kenny, had left some Fianna Fáil TDs shell-shocked.

“I was sick when I heard it, the announcement dropped like a thud,” said one newly elected TD.

One veteran deputy responded to the Kenny coalition offer by raising his index finger, adding: “Those arrogant pricks, how dare they.”

While some held out approval for the coalition option, Mr Martin ultimately took the majority view and, after 4pm, took the answer back up to the acting Taoiseach in an office above Leinster House.

What followed next does not bode well for future negotiations between the two party leaders. Both had what Government sources described as a business-like 10-minute meeting.

Mr Kenny’s spokesman afterwards revealed his opponent had rejected the offer and this was a “serious mistake”.

Mr Martin, for his part, called a press conference on the plinth and told the media why the offer was rejected. It was in the “national interest” not to have such a huge majority government involving Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, he claimed.

The Cork South Central TD went on to criticise the “integrity” of the talks process, claiming Mr Kenny had, during the meeting, rejected a minority government option. The last 24 hours had “left a lot to be desired”, he quipped.

Nonetheless, he conceded that his party would be willing to facilitate a Fine Gael-led minority government.

Fine Gael ministers then came out of Leinster House and said the response was regrettable. Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney said Mr Martin’s decision was a historic rejection of what could have been a stable government.

Fine Gael’s Frances Fitzgerald, Simon Coveney, and Leo Varadkar following Fianna Fáil’s rejection of a deal
Fine Gael’s Frances Fitzgerald, Simon Coveney, and Leo Varadkar following Fianna Fáil’s rejection of a deal

Following the dramatic turns and twists of the last 24 hours, the deadlock between the two civil war parties now seems to have intensified. Instead of any path towards co-operation, there is a fear that another election could be in the air, with bookmakers shortening the odds on voters going to the polls again.

At this late stage in negotiations, more than 40 days since the election, there seems to be growing mistrust between not only the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties, but their very leaders.

All eyes will now turn to next Thursday’s vote, the third such one for a Taoiseach, at which some progress will surely have to be made on agreeing a government if another election is to be avoided.

Mr Kenny had the last word last night by issuing a terse but critical statement. He took a swipe at Mr Martin’s reasons for rejecting a grand coalition offer.

“I believe that this decision is a serious mistake and one which was driven by narrow party interests rather than the national interest,” he said.

This type of language from the leaders, openly to the public, will only fire up chances of another election and widen the gap for any negotiations on how a minority government might work.

Indeed, those chances of a working Government were shrinking last night, as Independent TDs piled in on top of the open public spat and declared their hesitancy about returning to the talks in the absence of the two parties cobbling some agreement together, even for a minority-led administration.

Members of the non-aligned five rural TDs are now refusing to continue negotiations without a deal between the two parties. Independent Alliance members also told the Irish Examiner they had not wanted to be used as “cover” for a deal and had “no appetite” to return to talks. Maybe acting health minister Leo Varadkar is right to keep those old election posters handy and ready for deployment.

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