Fine Gael want to start the talks now to avoid disaster with Brexit looming and Fianna Fail does not want to speak before the final budget of the three-year deal, writes <b>Daniel McConnell</b>
It is all just war games. Spoofing, seeking to call Fianna Fáil’s bluff.
All this talk of an early election, I was told, is just optics.
Close to midnight on Thursday, as we rose from our three-course dinner at the Fine Gael think-in in Salthill in Galway, the subject on most people’s mind was the chance of a general election before Christmas.
Some said is highly possible.
Some said it is highly desirable.
Some, however, say all the noise around Fine Gael getting ready for an election is part of an elaborate exercise in staring down Fianna Fáil.
The noise included leaks about TDs being told how to pose for election pictures, the inclusion of non-Oireachtas candidates at the think-in for the first time and the appointment of campaign election directors at local level.
“We don’t want an election, but ‘we are ready’ is the signal to Fianna Fáil,” the TD told me.
Others who spoke to me rejected that school of thought.
They said an election in November is highly possible and the party leader and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is merely keeping his options open.
“It will be November or summer 2020,” another TD said.
The talk of an election was sparked on Tuesday by the decision of Varadkar to tweet his 10-page letter and appendix to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin requesting that talks on a new confidence and supply deal begin before the budget.
In his letter, Varadkar said the budget is now less than six weeks away and said the Government cannot function or work in the interests of the people if it is living on borrowed time.
“A government cannot function if it does not know if it will last from week-to-week or month-to-month,” he wrote.
“Such uncertainty weakens our hand in Brexit talks, domestic negotiations and of course those opposed to reform are simply more likely to wait us out. Such a scenario would not be in the interests of citizens, taxpayers or users of our public services.
“So, I am writing to you to seek confirmation that you are willing to re-commit to the Confidence and Supply Arrangement for the remainder of this Dáil. I suggest that in the interests of certainty, we agree a General Election date for the summer of 2020.”
The rebuff from Martin and his troops was instantaneous.
Martin said the Taoiseach provided an “incomplete picture” of the ongoing implementation of the confidence and supply arrangement.
“It is plain for all to see that there are still serious deficiencies, particularly regarding the emergency in housing and the crisis in our health service,” Mr Martin wrote.
He reiterated Fianna Fáil’s commitment to successfully negotiating the upcoming budget.
The confidence and supply agreement ties the parties to provide three budgets and the review is set for after the upcoming budget in October.
“This has no grounding in our constitutional system and was not raised as an issue when the arrangement was negotiated.
“Indeed it would be extraordinary if we were to agree that ministers could not be expected to do their jobs without advance assurance of a compliant Dáil.”
His justice spokesperson, Jim O’Callaghan, said his party would not enter negotiations to extend the confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael until after Budget 2019.
It would be “completely illogical” and would make “absolutely no sense” for Fianna Fáil to agree to extend the confidence and supply agreement prior to any agreement on Budget 2019, he said.
To do so would leave Fianna Fáil with “no tool” in their negotiations on the Budget, he told RTÉ’s News at One.
“My view is that Leo Varadkar wants an election in October or November and that’s why he’s trying to get out of the confidence and supply agreement.”
O’Callaghan’s comments drew a response directly from Varadkar.
Speaking to me, the Taoiseach sharply rejected O’Callaghan’s charge that he was seeking to force an election.
Varadkar said: “Quite the contrary. I am seeking an agreement on an election in the summer of 2020 after Brexit and another budget, thus giving us all certainty and political stability. I am also setting out what I believe the Government can achieve for the people of Ireland if we are allowed to keep doing our work until then.”
So Fine Gael want to start the talks now to avoid disaster with Brexit looming and Fianna Fail does not want to speak before the final budget of the three-year deal is finalised.
Varadkar yesterday made it clear he will keep asking for the early talks, even if Martin is not listening.
But stepping back from all this noise, a number of things are clear.
Firstly, there is a body of thought among Fine Gael ministers that a November election is the best chance to regain power.
One minister, speaking to me privately, reckoned on a good day, the party could return with as many as 69 seats, which would firmly put it in the driving seat to form the next government.
Such a seat haul is most likely unachievable but coming back with 62 to 65 seats is not that unbelievable a proposition.
Secondly, even if Leo Varadkar does not share that enthusiasm for going early, he is making sure he is not caught on the hop as they were last November when the Frances Fitzgerald controversy almost led to a snap election.
Thirdly, there is a strong sense that even if peace can break out between Varadkar and Martin, the Fianna Fáil leader will not be able to get the support of his front bench or his parliamentary party to extend the current arrangement.
Such frustrations have been clearly articulated by such TDs as Kilkenny TD and Oireachtas finance committee chair John McGuinness, who has been a constant thorn in Martin’s side.
Speaking this week, McGuinness said renewing the confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael would look like his party was “condoning” poor Government policies.
McGuinness made it clear he is not in favour of continuing the deal if things remain the same.
He said that people have had enough of the Government and that it should either be fixed now or a general election called, saying: “Stop the dancing around on this issue”.
Such niggling between the two parties is clear evidence that the remarkable stability of the minority government is fracturing and once that happens, it is virtually impossible to restore it.
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