54 days since the election, it seems clear that, for some, the real focus is on the next election, writes Donal O’Keeffe  

You’d want to be brave to comment on the ongoing discussions to form a government, seeing as the story twists and turns on a daily basis, but 54 days – and counting – since the election, one thing at least is clear: for some in Dáil Éireann, the last election isn’t half as important as the next.

It looks – at the time of writing – like the talking will go on well past the (presumably) scheduled next failure to elect a Taoiseach. With the Labour Party suddenly talking about talking about going back into coalition – and whither the Greens and SocDems? – it looks like this uncertainty could stretch out for weeks more.

Latest polling suggests an immediate election would only yield another hung Dáil (and cost €40 million we don’t have). The Independents might well suffer if the electorate thinks again about electing a hodge-podge of sole traders, what’s left of Labour can’t be too confident either and Sinn Fein and Fianna Fáil would rather wait. O Lord give us a fresh election, seems the prevailing opinion in political circles, but not just yet.

Fine Gael’s offer to Fianna Fáil of full partnership government was a stroke worthy of Fianna Fáil and the humour hasn’t been great with Micheál Martin since. There’s a lot of that going around. Enda Kenny – another man normally given to a naturally sunny disposition – was said last week by someone in regular contact with him to be looking “like he’s ready to throw his hat at it”.

(Word around Leinster House suggests that even if Enda fulfils his ambition to be the first Fine Gael Taoiseach consecutively-re-elected, he’ll be gone anyway by Christmas).

It was darkly hilarious to see Sinn Fein and the AAAPBP cheerleading the notion of a FF/FG grand coalition, given that they continually denounce the Civil War parties as the Twin Great Satans and yet they seem happy to wish their right-wing governance upon the country.

Fianna Fáil was never going to go for grand coalition – the grassroots would never buy it and anyway Micheál’s focus is on the next election – but Fine Gael cleverly put FF on the back foot by offering. The offer also had the intended side-effect of letting the Independent TDs – those who say “Lookit” and those who betray their FF gene pool roots by saying “Fyne Gael” – know that they’re not indispensable, but it remains to be seen whether that may yet backfire on FG.

Micheál, of course, told the Independents that last Thursday would be their last chance to vote for him as the Taoiseach of a minority FF-led coalition. Given that FF was never realistically going to lead a minority government anyway, the Independents chose to stay on the pot.

There is a school of thought within FG which thinks the Independents too difficult to control and too expensive to buy. The five rural Independent TDs issued a statement at the weekend, denying the Sunday Independent’s story that their support would come with a €13 billion pork barrel price tag. Even if the story isn’t true, you can be sure their support will be well-primed at the parish pump.

In any case – unless the hashtag #GE16 isn’t to get a second outing – we’re left with the only show in town: a minority FG government facilitated by FF (“facilitated” is the word preferred in FF circles) until – presumably – such time as FF feels ready to pull the House down. Or as the Independent TD Michael Lookit Fitzmaurice termed such an arrangement, “a chicken watched over by a fox”.

With Fianna Fáil abstaining, Fine Gael needs 58 votes. It got 52 last week, with their own 50 backed by Michael Lowry and Katherine Zappone. (Zappone, of course, was castigated online by her erstwhile supporters on the far left. Because homelessness, health, Irish Water and the Eighth Amendment can presumably all be fixed by angry and self-righteous roaring and shouting from the sidelines.)

Labour thinking about possibly re-entering the fray is interesting. Having lost a staggering 30 of their 37 seats, many in Labour feel they should sit this one out. Then again, there are strong voices within the party saying it will be hard to rebuild in opposition if they are outflanked on the left by the Trotskyites and drowned out by the big beasts of FF and Sinn Fein clashing for dominance.

The Irish Times’ Miriam Lord suggests the reward for Labour’s return to government might be one senior ministry, two junior ministries and three senators.

One Labour source agreed with the suggestion that Mary Harney’s dictum might be true: “The worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition”. (More cautious Labour voices might remind their comrades of what became of the Progressive Democrats.)

Unlikely as it appears now, Labour returning to coalition seems the only – slim – chance of a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. FF is a far more socially conservative party than FG nowadays, and the Shinners and the alphabet spaghetti lads have no desire or hope of being in power anytime this side of the glorious revolution.

Ironically, if Labour was to return to coalition (and it seems increasingly unlikely) then the Government which lost the last election would end up back in office, albeit greatly weakened, until such time as FF is ready to do them in.

It will, of course, be interesting to see how FF can sell themselves as the strongest voice of opposition even as Sinn Fein will remind us at every opportunity that it was FF which kept FG in power.

As the dust settled on the day after the election, a minority FG-led coalition – “facilitated” by FF – seemed the most likely outcome. 54 days later, it still does.

Who knows how long it might last.

A chicken watched over by a fox, indeed.