GERARD HOWLIN: Only a colossal error of judgment will lead to a general election

The pushing and shoving over who really wants an election is the tribal violence of ward politics in a student union setting.

Only a colossal error of judgment will lead to an election. That’s possible, of course, but unlikely. Those getting election posters ready now may yet have to Photoshop them before the event.

There is no reason for Fianna Fáil to trigger an election, and almost as little for Fine Gael. Sinn Féin can’t get its hand on the plug to pull it directly.

It backed off attempting a domino effect by pressuring Fianna Fáil when its motion of no confidence in Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy failed to appear. Its agenda is to allow the political project which is Mary Lou to peak.

Fine Gael and Leo are in political heaven. Only pride will cause a premature fall, and the fall of the proud is horrible to behold. Fianna Fáil, or some of them, knows it must play for time, and its leader appears to have the steel to do so. The noise we have been hearing is guff.

The atmosphere of the students’ union is most apparent around Leo Varadkar. That perception is partly the inverted ageism of my own prejudice.

It’s also a fact that callowness is ultimately only varnished by experience. Still, some of this speculation comes from a conceit that opinion poll numbers can easily be translated into votes on polling day for Fine Gael.

That might be the case in the right circumstances. In the event of an unnecessary election, it won’t be.

An election campaign is an exacting exam for proposals that don’t bear scrutiny. A game of pass the parcel, before a connived election happens in September anyway, won’t advance Fine Gael much beyond where it is and may set it back.

That result for Leo, chosen as an antidote to Enda, would be scarifying. It would unhinge the claim of his candidacy for the party leadership, which was to revive it in terms of personnel and thought-leadership, and into position as the natural party of government.

Abandoning government for the hustings, when Fine Gael has more ministers in office than ever, and is likely ever again, while the economy continues to recover and Fianna Fáil is committed to the broad thrust of budgetary policy — particularly while Brexit is an increasingly near and more dangerous threat — would be the worst of all things in politics: A mistake.

It would be a mistake of the sort Charles Haughey made in 1989, and Albert Reynolds in 1992.

But worse. Those election results contained the ultimate doom of their originators. In politics, you see, loyalty is transactional.

Part of Fine Gael’s concern is Fianna Fáil. Having acquired traits of discipline and unity itself, they fret about the Soldiers sitting opposite.

They have a point. No leader of the opposition, especially over a long trek in the political wilderness, has the means to command or control colleagues like a Taoiseach has. The patronage is measly and the threats are nearly pointless.

Fianna Fáil is still in post-trauma mode. It is seven years since 2011, time has passed, and we are virtually back at full employment. But economic and psychological scars remain. The party has recovered significantly, compared to where it was, but there is no back to the future for it.

The confidence-and-supply agreement which underlies the relationship with Fine Gael is deeply unpopular with Fianna Fáil TDs. There is a sense of being forced to fight Fine Gael with one hand tied behind their backs, and being squeezed by Sinn Féin.

Be that as it may, causing an election would be foolhardy in the extreme. It would cast the party as reckless and unreformed. That’s the mantra with which Fine Gael wants to necklace Fianna Fáil.

In a delicate game of balance and advantage, which will end inevitably in the bear pit of an election, simultaneously gouging your opponent while waltzing requires a mix of skills and a very cool temperament.

Micheál Martin’s challenge will be to wait and simultaneously corral his colleagues in a semi-detached arrangement with government.

The irony of Fine Gael’s tut-tutting about unruly, unreliable Fianna Fáil when Varadkar — in student union mode — couldn’t resist the put-downs of the debating society, puts at risk what he says he wants to achieve.

Things can escalate. Words create momentum. But they won’t change the fundamental facts on the ground, which are that people don’t want an election and will punish whoever causes one. It is that reality, I believe, which will prevail, in the way self-interest usually outs.

The question now is what next? Fine Gael is goading Fianna Fáil for talks sooner rather than later.

Martin has the upper hand here. The agreement doesn’t expire until a third budget and the review is then and not before.

What is also agreed is Fine Gael will “implement the agreed policy principles attached to this document over a full term of government”.

This is the potential basis for Varadkar asking Fianna Fáil not for a pause of a few months before a summer election or for just one more budget, but for two.

It would change the political dynamic and apparently put Fianna Fáil on the spot. On examination, it is less of an ask than it might appear. An election next spring, coinciding with Brexit, would only double down on the foolishness of causing one sooner.

One next summer, held with local and European elections, is unlikely to

appeal to either main party. If you are still there then, you are effectively holding the baby of the following budget in your arms.

The appeal for Varadkar to discommode Fianna Fáil by seeking another two budgets, after the current three are delivered, is obvious.

It is also based, albeit not prescriptively, in the text of the current agreement. For Martin, as distinct from his parliamentary colleagues, it may be less of a discombobulation than the Taoiseach imagines.

Varadkar is popular. His frontline team is stronger than Martin’s and for now, he has momentum. The Fianna Fáil game, or at least that of its leaders, is to dig in deep on the ground, build up candidates locally, and wait on events — and if God is good, on a great mistake from Fine Gael.

We may be on the cusp of disarray and an election. We are as likely to be in the messy antecedents of an unimagined scenario where this Dáil delivers not only three budgets but five. Fianna Fáil has 22 new TDs and surely the long haul suits them best. Of 50 Fine Gael TDs, 28 are in office.

By any reckoning, these are the good old days for them. Then there are the consequences of the alternative. I think the dance will go on, and maybe even on and on.


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