The lengthy process of government formation will be haunted as much by the next election as by the last, writes Donal O’Keeffe.
“The people have spoken, the bastards,” said American political strategist and prankster Dick Tuck, conceding defeat in the 1966 California State Senate election which put paid to his own electoral ambitions.
Bill Clinton offered a variation on that after the disputed 2000 US presidential election result: “The American people have spoken – but it’s going to take a little time to determine exactly what they said.”
The Irish people have spoken, and whether you see what they said in terms of Tuck or Clinton, probably says something about your own politics.
Fianna Fáil has 38 seats, Sinn Féin 37 and Fine Gael 35. The Greens have 12 seats. Labour is down one to six, and the Social Democrats have six seats. There are five Solidarity – People Before Profit seats, one Aontu, one Independents4Change, and 19 Independents.
You need a minimum of 80 seats to be Taoiseach, and you’ll need a few more if you’re hoping to have a durable working majority.
Sinn Féin was undoubtedly the story of the election, increasing its seats from 22 to 37, and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern observed that their surpluses suggested SF might well have returned 49 TDs, had the party – anymore than anyone else – foreseen the surge coming its way.
The intervention by Breege Quinn, whose son Paul was beaten to death by Provisional IRA members not 13 years ago, and his name falsely blackened by Conor Murphy, one of Sinn Féin’s little princes, was met with an almighty shrug by Sinn Féin voters.
The Shinners were quick out of the government formation traps, with Mary Lou McDonald declaring her desire to assemble a coalition of the left which would exclude both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael from government.
As Pat Leahy put it in the Irish Times, nothing illustrated better how much of a long shot such a coalition would be than when “the Green Party’s meeting with the People Before Profit-Solidarity group turned out to be a meeting only with the three TDs in the People Before Profit element of the alliance. Solidarity, with its one TD, Mick Barry, would hold a separate meeting with Rise (also one TD, Paul Murphy).”
Last Wednesday, Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin declared that his parliamentary party had agreed with his recommendation that Labour not serve in the next government. After four hard years as Labour leader, a job he seemingly accepted only at the pleading of colleagues desperate to put a halt to Alan ‘AK47’ Kelly’s gallop, Howlin announced he was stepping down. A becalmed Labour continues to pay the price for its part in the 2011-2016 Fine Gael-led austerity government and shows no sign of recovery. And here comes ‘AK47’.
By last Friday, it was obvious to SF housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin that either FF or FG would be needed for government formation, and he was vilified by Richard Boyd-Barrett for “throwing in the towel”. By Monday, however, Mary Lou was “still very much determined that an alternative and a new government of change can be created.”
Outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who says he will “relish” a spell as leader of the opposition, said: “Sinn Féin should try to put together a government of the left with Independents. It’s difficult and would take time, but the votes are there.”
On social media, we call that trolling.
On Monday night, after a six-hour FG parliamentary party meeting, a lonesome-looking Leo – uncharacteristically undoughnutted, and accompanied only by parliamentary party chairman Martin Heydon – doubled down on his call to Sinn Féin to form a government.
“Other parties sought a mandate and made a lot of extraordinary, impossible promises to the Irish people, and they’ve a duty now to fulfil those promises (or) come out here onto the plinth and say that they’ve failed.”
Lyndon B Johnson’s great political advice was “Learn to count”.
SF has 37 seats. With the Greens’ 12, if they play ball, that’s 49. The various Solidarity-People Before Profit People’s Fronts of Judea have five, and seem – for the moment, anyway – willing to join in. That’s 54. Throw in Joan Collins of Independents4Change. That’s 55.
Labour’s six are off the table, and Social Democrats’ co-leader Catherine Murphy apparently talking about putting her name forward for Ceann Comhairle suggests the Sockies’ six might be gone too, but to be charitable, say the Social Democrats decide to join. That’s 61.
That leaves 19 TDs needed.
As it happens, there are 19 Independents. Good luck, though, corralling the likes of Mattie McGrath, Michael Lowry and the Healy Raes into a left-wing coalition of change, but even if you could, imagine the list of demands. Michael Collins in Cork South West, for example, wants a ministry of fisheries, a rural relocation scheme, and no downgrading of Bantry Hospital. And the other 18 will all want similar.
There seems not a hope in hell that Mary Lou can assemble this lucky bag of a coalition, and so the next option seems to be an FF and SF coalition with the Greens (38+37+12=87). Micheál Martin – who had almost as bad an election as Leo Varadkar – has set his face against entertaining SF, and for the moment, at least, enjoys the support of most of his parliamentary party.
With FG also refusing to do business with the Shinners, expect to hear Mary Lou bemoaning – a lot – that SF is being excluded from power by “the former big two”, even though she has built her brand on not actually wanting to see those parties in power.
My money, if I had any, is on an FF/FG/Greens coalition (38+35+12=85) eventually, reluctantly, and In The National Interest, declaring that after maybe 100 days of negotiations, the country voted for change, and by golly we’ll give you change. I would imagine this would manifest itself as something like SláinteCare 2.0, the Greens in Environment and Transport, and the greatest campaign of social housing building since FF did the same when we hadn’t a washer.
We all know there’s not a cigarette paper of policy difference between the Old Firm of FF and FG. It’s all about tone. Fine Gael are officer class, and the lads in Fianna Fáil are great craic. That’s about it.
The sticking point will be what happens after the Grand Coalition. If the Civil War parties don’t intend to marry permanently, how will they eventually break up?
There are loud voices in FG roaring that the party had 75 TDs in 2011, 50 in 2016 and now 35. What happens if the Blueshirts prop up an FF-led coalition? That said, though, Varadkar has been careful to say that, as a last resort, dot dot dot…
If there is a Grand Coalition, though, that leaves SF to luxuriate in opposition, and to grow exponentially. In truth, SF probably sees the trap of coalition with FF. After all, look at Labour’s thanks for their time with FG.
As soon as you go into government, you’re the bad guy. You can promise all the change you like, but once you’re in power, you end up defending the status quo.
On the converse, though, FF recognises SF as what it used to be: the apex predator of populist opportunism. FF fears SF will eat them alive. Hence their reticence.
I think Sinn Féin plans to sit this one out, and hopes the rage of the disaffected won’t dissipate before the next election. Then, when it all falls apart for the Grand Coalition, when Health proves to be the Angola it always does, and the great social housing scheme collapses when it turns out there aren’t enough builders to build the houses, and the Greens have their next fit of the vapours, the Shinners run more candidates and aim for an over-all majority.
It’s the last election that’s dictating the numbers, but it’s the next election that’s dictating the shadow-boxing.
The last government formation talks took 70 days.
I’d stock up on popcorn.