Without a credible alternative Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s “political Jedward” moment may have to wait…

With a touch of Ganesh’s “discriminating regard for fundamentals” in mind, here’s the most intelligent comment on the likely outcomes of an indecisive election result on Friday since Derek Mooney’s piece for Slugger. This time it’s from Eoin O’Malley.

Firstly, political instability is not against any constitutional law that I’ve ever heard of…

…the events of 1981/82 show that while governments tend to be formed the ones formed will not always be the most stable option available. Why did we not then see a Fianna Fáil/ Labour coalition? The government formed will be the least politically costly one.

This is why the Fine Gael/ Fianna Fáil coalition is highly unlikely. It’s too politically costly for the smaller party.

O’Malley goes on…

So what is likely to happen. Martin won’t want an immediate second election. I suspect that in the interests of ‘stable government’, ‘the country’ etc. Fianna Fáil will eventually abstain from a vote to elect Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. They won’t do this on March 10th. They’ll want to see him rejected at least once, as this will damage Kenny’s image and reputation. This will force a minority Fine Gael government (perhaps with Labour) to form issue-by-issue coalitions in which Fianna Fáil will be able to extract visible concessions from the government on issues.

Rather than having to leave government, Fianna Fáil will have a much stronger bargaining position because each vote will be one whether it supports government. It won’t be locked in. It could then vote against the government when it pleased, but give an assurance that it would abstain in confidence motions.

Fianna Fáil could then choose to end this arrangement and, in say 16 months, could force an election on an issue and timing that suits Fianna Fáil. This could be the election that makes it the biggest party again and makes Micheál Martin the Taoiseach.

This isn’t a risk free strategy.

Fianna Fáil would need to be careful not to be seen as blocking decisions for partisan gain.Kenny has been badly exposed as a campaigning leader in this election, but he was by most accounts a good chair of cabinet. If he were an effective chair of a government that happened in the open – reasonable, willing to listen and make concessions – his popularity might increase.

More likely is that Kenny would stand down after a period (his age means this would not be humiliating for him). A new Fine Gael leader, such as Varadkar, would be a much more difficult proposition for Fianna Fáil. It would have  a dilemma to allow the new leader be elected Taoiseach or to cause an immediate election.

Martin might look stale in comparison. It’s likely that it would not want to allow the new Fine Gael leader be elected Taoiseach because this would give him or her the advantages of office and being seen as a Taoiseach. This means that Fianna Fáil wouldn’t necessarily get to choose the issue or timing of a subsequent election.

So, that’s a scenario (no more, no less) in which stuff might happen. O’Malley suggests the difference between the two parties is mostly viceral: although I would guess that’s true of most traditional political divisions.

Labour-Tory tensions work mostly because – even though there’s much overlap in the centre – the tribes themselves are largely mutually exclusive. One fairly mainstream Fianna Failer told me a few weeks back that he’d sooner vote for Sinn Fein than Fine Gael any day.

However in O’Malley’s risky scenario above there has to be more than tradition at play. Going into such a heightened situation there needs to be obvious break points in the negotiating rounds that are substantive, and not just scribbled on the back of an envelope.

This is a point that much of the southern commentariat seems have missed. One of Martin’s key achievements has been not to allow the (often very angry) right wingers within his party to draw him away from building something resembling a centre left agenda.

Fianna Fail’s position on Irish Water has an admireable clarity to it: scrap the current proto privatisation model, along with water charges until such times as the system is fixed. Not a hundred miles from what the water protestors are asking for?

That is likely to take much longer than the one term currently on offer, but by the next term EU regulations on transparency in charging for water may have become a lot more urgent. On the other hand, he could buy himself (or his successor) a lot of time for that.

Health too has significant divergences, courtesy of Fine Gael’s ill-fated daliance with a system predicated on insurance payments. Fianna Fail’s healthcare through taxation approach may be broad enough and functional enough to make an appeal across the spectrum.

In today’s Irish Times Fintan O’Toole argues that “the gradual coming together of the great Jedward of Irish politics is inevitable”. It’s a great line, but I’m not sure it’s right. Martin’s model has been to accept that there’s no going back to the monolithic past.

He’s been building a more distributed model of political leadership, more akin to a typical European centerist project by building an agenda capable of broad buy in without the necessity exercising direct control through party dominance within the Dail.

Political Jeward (or Tweedledum and Tweedledee as Gerry likes to call them) may have to wait until there’s a viable alternative to them.

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  • tmitch57

    It will be a big victory for Irish politics when the two main parties realize that they both have more in common with each other than either has with Sinn Fein or even Labour for that matter. Then they can make adjustments and a more coherent party system can emerge.

  • Robin Keogh

    FF are like the Japan of Irish politics; they carefully watch what all the other parties are proposing and then compose something that catches the lot. In fairness that has always been their strength. What we know about friday is we know very little about what gov will be formed.

  • the rich get richer

    How these twins can get away with being called different political parties is amazing.

    They are the same party that occasionally swap positions.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    What I take from this is how surprisingly *left* of centre FF’s policies are!

    The health care policy is basically the British NHS, isn’t it? And the water policy is to revert to the previous system for now, rather than charge.

    Interesting, and lays the ground for future alliances…

  • Discuscutter

    They have always known that they have more in common with each other.

    FG are so unsuccessful politically because they are often comfortable with FF doing the driving.