In 1989, then-finance minister and would-be taoiseach Albert Reynolds was eviscerated for dismissing Fianna Fáil’s coalition with the Progressive Democrats as a “temporary little arrangement”, writres Daniel McConell.
This ire was reflective of the widespread opinion within the Soldiers of Destiny at the time that single-party government was a core belief and Charlie Haughey’s deal with Des O’Malley and his fellow rebels was a betrayal.
In the Dáil bar on Thursday evening, a group of Fianna Fáil TDs gathered around the TV screen to watch their justice spokesman, Jim O’Callaghan, effectively call time on the supply and confidence arrangement by saying that the party would not be voting confidence in Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.
That deal, which has seen Fianna Fáil facilitate the Fine Gael-led minority Government from opposition, has become increasingly unpopular among Micheál Martin’s troops. So when O’Callaghan called ‘time’, his colleagues, including Barry Cowen, Thomas Byrne, Robert Troy, Dara Calleary, Billy Kelleher, the two Chambers Lisa and Jack, Ann Rabbitte, and Margaret Murphy O’Mahony cheered loudly.
Fianna Fáil had made it known to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s office with just minutes to go before O’Callaghan went to air that, should the Tánaiste depart her post, then their man would not appear.
As much as Reynolds and his cohorts disliked that temporary little arrangement with the PDs in the late 1980s, the current crop of Fianna Fáilers like the current temporary little arrangement even less.
The pace of events on Thursday was incredible and people’s views were literally shifting by the hour.
One Fine Gael minister, in the wake of a rocky performance by Fitzgerald at Leaders’ Questions, told me he expected her to be gone by dinner time.
But by 7pm that same minister was adamant that the party was four square behind her and that talk of her resignation or sacking was ludicrous.
But, while this was an issue which began about the maltreatment of Sgt Maurice McCabe, the Garda whistleblower, this now has way more to do with the fatal strains on the minority Government and its deal with Fianna Fáil.
Being honest, it was always going to end this way.
The sheer instability of this eunuch minority Government means the arrangement was always vulnerable to collapse.
“This was always ready to fall. Things on one level normalised but on the other at the back of your head was the realisation that this could still fall any time over any issue,” said one minister.
What is also clear, and as I and others suggested back at the start of this Dáil term, once the Budget was out of the way, all bets were off and an election was possible at any stage.
This was a political crisis primarily driven by growing internal frustration within Fianna Fáil at the confidence and supply arrangement, which has seen them support the Fine Gael-led minority government from opposition for the past 18 months.
It could never last and once the Budget in October was out of the way, all bets were off.
Despite all the public pronouncements that Fianna Fáil was committed to the three-year deal; in private the story was very different.
“It is a pain in the backside. We are grinning and bearing it to be honest,” is how one leading Fianna Fáil party figure described the confidence and supply deal.
“The grassroots have been up in arms in the past few months. I know there was a lot of dissatisfaction at many of our local meetings,” said another.
A huge driving force behind the cheers in the Dáil bar was the frustration at the party’s previous marches up the hill only for them to come back down with their tail between their legs.
With the threat made during the summer on the controversy over former attorney general Máire Whelan’s appointment to the Court of Appeal, Fianna Fáil rightly opened itself up to ridicule as to its credibility.
According to senior party figures, on that occasion, Jim O’Callaghan went on a solo run in saying the appointment was a surprise and did call into question the confidence and supply agreement.
“He went too far and, as a lawyer, he is probably used to finessing his argument in court. But you can’t finesse your argument in a 15-second clip on the Six One News,” said a colleague.
Yet O’Callaghan’s wings weren’t clipped by Martin, who continuously appears willing to forgive his legal man.
“There is unease from our members at us marching up the hill so often and coming back down with nothing to show for it. Sooner or later we will have to do more than talk about pulling the plug,” said the source.
The decision by O’Callaghan to pull the trigger was a cathartic release for Fianna Fail TDs, as revealed by their audible cheers in the Dáil bar.
While Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar were yesterday preparing to meet, it was suggested that, should Fitzgerald resign before Tuesday, the crisis would avert itself and the show would continue.
That is nonsense. Confidence and supply is dead. Even if Fitzgerald resigns the country is going to the polls.
The belated decision of her Fine Gael colleagues to jump to her defence on Thursday night appears to be solely driven by a desire to show Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin that they will not remove any one of them at their behest.
To illustrate this, on Wednesday night, Fitzgerald stood isolated and weakened and without a colleague willing to go to bat for her on the airwaves.
Come Thursday night, you could not get ministers off the airwaves telling us that “she has done nothing wrong”.
For Leo Varadkar, he is taking the gamble of his political career.
His stubborn refusal to consider sacking his Tánaiste, despite her obvious failings on this Maurice McCabe email saga, means he is risking ending his premiership after just four months.
While no politician wants an election this side of Christmas or even in the short run, the clear signal from Cabinet ministers is that should an election, they are not daunted by it.
I ask why?
“Because Leo is now leader. If Enda was still leader, we would be goosed, but Leo and his ministers are well able to sell our message,” said one minister on Thursday night.
So if Fine Gael go to the country, what would its message be?
“Well, there is a school of thought that we remind them of our progress in office while ever so gently scaring the shit out of them about what life would be like if Sinn Féin get in,” a minister said.
“Also, it would be likely that we would talk up the prospect of a Sinn Féin coalition with Fianna Fail, which we feel is a strong play,” the minister added.
What is clear is the collective experiment that is New Politics has failed and whether it is before or after Christmas, the election is on.
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