GERARD HOWLIN: Fine Gael will be left only with hard choices even after Enda Kenny departs

It could seek a coalition with Sinn Féin but that would require Napoleonic verve, writes Gerard Howlin

ENDA may tell his colleagues tonight he is off. The off may be sooner or later. But underlying the froth about runners and riders for the Fine Gael leadership is a deep conundrum.

Assuming a new leader generates a bounce in support and sustains it through a general election, Fine Gael is still left only with hard choices. That’s the benign scenario. If there is no bounce, it is hard to see there being any choice at all. When the 33rd Dáil meets after the next election, the determining factor will not be how well it did. A relatively good result only gets it to the starting line of government formation. The finishing line depends on its capacity to generate alliances with others, in a scenario where Fianna Fáil is unable or unwilling to do so.

When Fine Gael’s new leader is elected, he will be taken aside by very senior party officials and shown detailed research and polling analysis which he has almost certainly not been privy to before. It’s the equivalent of a new pope being told the third secret of Fatima and a glimpse into political eternity. Unlike opinion polls that plot a party’s fortunes nationally, this research will lay out the entrails of 40 constituencies, with named candidates. With big sweeps of momentum such as Fine Gael enjoyed in 2011 or suffered in 2016 all bets are off and anything is possible. More modest modulation leaves little room for manoeuvre and precious few choices.

In 2016 Fine Gael got 25.5% of the vote and 50 seats. Fianna Fáil on 24.3% got six fewer. It was Fianna Fáil’s refusal to enter into a grand coalition that by default led to the current arrangement. It left Fine Gael in government and Fianna Fáil free to build on its gains, to fight another day. If there was some appetite for government in Fianna Fáil after the last election, it was limited. I believe that scenario will be fundamentally different next time. Micheál Martin must almost certainly become Taoiseach or forfeit his leadership. The waiting game is over. It’s do or die. The issue of a grand coalition on its second outing will be a hardy perennial. It’s one option for Fianna Fáil, but one they would be foolish to take. That arrangement would permanently diminish the size of its component parts. It is not that the centre couldn’t hold, it would shrivel. It would be the mother of all gifts for Sinn Féin, and those further left, at Fianna Fáil’s expense.

The other option for Fianna Fáil is Sinn Féin. Denials aside, and even if it’s a less grand coalition, it’s a more practical one. Sinn Féin cannot be taken for granted, but its deputy leader Mary Lou MacDonald has spoken of the need for an internal conversation about going into government here. It is naturally a party of government, not opposition. The retirement of Gerry Adams from nominal leadership would pave the way. The involvement of a slightly revived Labour Party would give it an additional change in appearance from the alliance Fianna Fáil forswears now. But all of this about what Fianna Fáil’s options may be only underlines the more limited room for manoeuvre for the next leader of Fine Gael.

It is not enough to stay barely ahead of Fianna Fáil on Dáil seats. There must be an appreciable gap. It must be sufficient to disable Fianna Fáil’s options of an arrangement similar to the current one with whatever independents are available, or if it is prepared to take the plunge with Sinn Féin.

Fine Gael will be left only with hard choices even after Enda Kenny departs

Wading through the entrails of the detailed research he will be presented with, will bring an understanding of how difficult that will be to deliver for Enda Kenny’s successor. Achieving a general election tally of 30% would be a very good result for Fine Gael. But it’s questionable how far past a seat tally of 55 it would bring the party. Take Tipperary where it has no seat, and where one should be available. That depends on imposing a one-candidate strategy — and finding the right candidate too. Holding the Fine Gael seat in Dublin South Central will be challenging. And so it goes around the country. There are few easy wins and some difficult to hold. The constituency boundary commission may change the contours, but not the challenge.

Campaigns matter, of course. Fine Gael gifted Fianna Fáil in the local elections of 2014 and the general election of 2016. That needn’t continue and some of its new seats are not bedded down. The dynamic of a new Labour and a new Fine Gael leader — and possibly a new Sinn Féin one — matters for Fianna Fáil. But another incremental increase, and on current national polls, that’s not unlikely, eats into the electoral space Fine Gael must expand into. If it is not in sight of 60 seats, it will be hard for Fine Gael to disable Fianna Fáil’s options. Every seat gain for Fianna Fáil is an opportunity cost to Fine Gael, where a slight tilting of the scales is potentially decisive.

THERE is one manoeuvre open to Fine Gael, which would stun its opponents, and reconfigure the landscape. It could seek a coalition with Sinn Féin. That would require Napoleonic verve. After 20 years of peace process, and a new leader of Sinn Féin it would be the decisive next step. Coinciding with Brexit, it could be said to be in the national interest.

For the indigenous indignant within Fine Gael it would be said, only they could be trusted to safeguard the State in what if not now, is eventually an inevitable development. It would be the great demarche of Irish politics, and stunning in its consequences. It would be practical politics because neither party is in mutual competition for votes. However, it is also improbable. The problem is not that it is outrageous. It is that, in Fine Gael terms, it is illicit.

Short of sweeping up towards 60 seats, Fine Gael’s options are strictly limited. The grand coalition will probably not materialise. In a scenario where one of, or both, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil make seat gains there will be a smaller pool of independents. More of the most embedded independents are more inclined to Fianna Fáil. If the two larger centre parties can’t coalesce, and neither will be beholden to Sinn Féin just yet, there are only two options short of yet another election. One is a reprise of the current arrangement. But with potentially fewer independents, that would be more difficult for either, and perhaps more so for Fine Gael. Finally, there is the untried option not of a coalition, or rotating Taoiseach, but a rotating government. A programme is agreed. Each of the two larger parties takes it in turns implementing it. All of which is to say, I think Enda has had the best of it. His legacy as party leader will be deeply problematic.

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