Our political leaders’ antics have made a May election more likely. It’s worth noting the reaction of a TD who is a bellwether of independent opinion, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell
What a mess we find ourselves in. Three weeks ago, this very column said May 20 is the most likely date for a second general election.
The juvenile antics of our dear beloved political masters in the past 72 hours has made that eventuality all the more likely.
The seemingly endless desire of the two main political leaders to engage in diva-esque behaviour ill become those who claim to aspire for the highest office in the land.
From refusing to speak to each other for 40 days and 40 nights, to insisting on a neutral venue for the meeting, to acting like teenagers about who broke up with whom, the past few days have been utterly depressing.
On Wednesday night, Temporary Taoiseach Enda Kenny eventually rang Micheál Martin to arrange a meeting. Rather than meet in the Taoiseach’s office or in the Sycamore Room in Government Buildings, a neutral venue was found. Room 716, known by ministers as the ‘shitty room’, is located off the ministerial corridor which links Leinster House to Government Buildings.
Enda spooked Micheál by offering him a full partnership government involving Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and some Independents.
Why Micheál was so shocked is frankly bizarre given this was around the fifth occasion since the election that Enda had made overtures to the old enemy.
He did it on March 10, the day the new Dáil first convened, calling on responsible leaders to act in the national interest. He reached out again when he was in Washington DC last month, and the papers — including this one — have been full of various offers from the Fine Gael leader.
In the Shitty Room, the two men and a note-taker met for 45 minutes. Enda stressed the need for a stable Government (obviously with him at the helm for a while of course) and that the parties had a duty to step up to the plate.
Enda also made it clear that he did not think either minority government option was really tenable and he would prefer the grand coalition, made up of the two parties, with some independents thrown in for political cover.
Micheál stressed the need for change, saying this is what the people voted for. He said he would refer the matter to a meeting of the Fianna Fáil party the following morning for discussion.
At that meeting on Thursday morning in Leinster House, Micheál was left in no doubt as to the mood of his own troops. Micheál had his ears bent by his own TDs who likened a deal with Fine Gael to high treason, punishable by death.
While the mood was nearly universal, there were one or two dissenting voices.
TDs John McGuinness and Marc MacSharry are in favour of a coalition and national government respectively; health spokesman Billy Kelleher and children’s spokesman Robert Troy believe some deal may be needed due to the numbers involved, but are happy to back the party’s decision to reject Mr Kenny’s offer. Newly elected TDs John Brassil and Fiona O’Loughlin told the meeting that options needed to be kept open; while Jackie Cahill said it is “too soon to close off all options”, as my colleagues Juno McEnroe and Fiachra Ó Cionnaith reported yesterday.
But it was a ‘no’, and that was that.
Martin, a wily political operator, was aware many in Fianna Fáil were against the idea of a grand coalition and he was not about to risk his own leadership on something like this, given such opposition within.
And while all that was going on, the truncated Fine Gael party of 50 TDs and their senators gave Kenny unanimous approval to do a deal. But later that afternoon, the two leaders met again in the Shitty Room and Micheál told Enda to take a hike. The terse meeting lasted just 17 minutes and 52 seconds.
Enda didn’t take kindly to being rebuffed — what spurned lover ever does? He saw fit to lecture Micheál about narrow-minded partisan politics and abandoning the national interest.
Perhaps the Shitty Room really is the appropriate location to hold talks, given they ended in disaster. Immediately each side sought to blame the other. A race to the plinth ensued with Enda Kenny’s spokesman, Feargal Purcell, holding an impromptu briefing laying the blame squarely at Micheál’s door. He insisted minority Government wasn’t discussed.
At a hastily arranged press conference, Martin called into question the integrity of Kenny’s offer and actions.
“Relationship is key to any engagement in politics and I would say, in some respects, that the last 24 hours left a lot to be desired,” he said. He said the issue of minority government was discussed.
Then, for good measure, Fine Gael ministers Simon Coveney, Frances Fitzgerald and Leo ‘My posters are ready’ Varadkar bemoaned a missed opportunity, repeating Kenny’s accusation that Fianna Fáil were putting party before the country.
The slight irony of all of this was Varadkar and others had warned in the run-up to the election that a grand coalition would be a disaster. So their expressions of disappointment rang somewhat hallow.
So what happens now? All eyes will be on next Thursday’s vote for Taoiseach, which will be the third.
Will Enda or Micheál be able to secure the votes of any of the Independents?
If they don’t, and we are left in a position where Kenny gets 51 votes again and Micheal gets 43, and no deal is possible between the two parties, then the only option left is a second election.
And we know the Independents are furious. They called for the two leaders to speak and are outraged at the decision by Fianna Fáil not to do a deal.
“It is appalling, it is outrageous. We are livid and sick,” John Halligan told me yesterday. “We have taken a lot of flack from our own supporters about possibly doing a deal. But we stood up to the plate. But we will not be used as cannon fodder by either of them.”
I asked him can he see himself supporting either man in the Dáil for the vote next week: “No, I can’t. I have to speak to the rest of the lads but, at this stage, no.
“And given what they have done, to hell with them both. Their behaviour is pathetic and childlike. When you think of the wars going on around the world and we can’t get two democratically -elected leaders to sort it out. It is despicable.”
Halligan talks a lot of sense and is a bellwether for opinion within the Independent group. His anger and frustration is genuine, having risked a lot of his support by entering talks.
Politics is often making the impossible possible. If Enda and Micheál can’t make a Government possible between them, they should consider their own positions, as they will have failed the country.
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