From top: Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin (centre) with members of his front bench last week announcing his party’s commitment to extend a confidence and supply arrangement that will keep Fine Gael in power; Derek Mooney
“There is nothing as unreliable as unremunerated advice.”
This is not a bad thing to bear in mind when you read online opinion pieces, particularly where the writer is an interested participant rather than a disinterested observer.
Opinion pieces from interested players offer a more “in the game” analysis that can sometimes be as much about what the author hopes will happen as it is about what they think will happen. The informed analysis is offered as much in the hope that it will help influence or guide an outcome as it in the desire to inform the reader.
This rather rambling introduction is all by way of me trying to explain why I have been saying over the last few weeks that Fianna Fáil would not renew its confidence and supply agreement.
I am not happy with the outcome. This is not because I have a Corriboard fetish and urgently need an election in February, March, April or May to satisfy this desire.
I do grasp the rationale offered by Micheál Martin and can totally understand why no one would want to have an election here just when Britain is leaving Europe – even with a full Withdrawal Agreement.
I take his point that when it comes to the timing of the next general election, the gap between him and critics is over a few months.
My problem with this particular iteration of a renewed confidence supply agreement is not that there is one, but rather that it is includes a commitment to another budget.
I accept the argument for a period of political certainty and calm here around the Brexit exit, but I do not see what agreeing to another Budget achieves.
Indeed, it is because I believe the Brexit concerns are legitimate and sincere that I question the wisdom of agreeing to another Budget. That timeline appears to be based on the prospect of Brexit proceeding on March 29th next.
But what if it doesn’t?
What happens if no agreement is reached in the House of Commons in January? What happens if the House of Commons rejects Prime Minister May’s Withdrawal Agreement when it votes on January 14/15/16 and the political impasse there continues.
Westminster’s European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, sets January 21st as the final deadline for Parliament agreeing any Withdrawal Agreement.
Why not wait until then to know the outline shape of the Brexit timeline and then decide the duration of any Confidence and Supply extension?
It seems just as likely as not that Westminster will realise by January 21st that the only consensus it can reach is on the need to avoid a No Deal Brexit – and the only way it can do that is to delay the March 29 Article 50 exit date.
For how long might it seek to delay its exit? Three months, six months, a year?
Should the House of Commons decide that is it going to have a second referendum, though I accept that there does not seem to be a Commons majority for this proposal right now, isn’t it likely that this would take some time to organise and arrange?
Surely the one lesson that even British politicians have come to learn from the 2016 disaster is that you do not rush head long into a referendum process?
While the timing of any Irish election should take a whole range of domestic and international matters into consideration, should that date be so predicated on events in Westminster?
Should Fianna Fáil be committing to another Fine Gael budget now, based on what may or may not happen in an increasingly deadlocked and dysfunctional House of Commons?
Why not wait one month more to decide on how to proceed? To wait just one month longer until we have some better idea of what may happen would not have been an unreasonable decision.
I know Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney were bleating on about their need to have political certainty on the government’s longevity, but certainty is one of the luxuries you lose when you form a government with barely a quarter of the vote.
Besides their desire for certainty was hardly stopping their minions spinning about how Fine Gael was ready and hoping for an early election.
Which brings me to one of key arguments behind the one-year extension: the prospect that the result would be deadlocked leading to three or four months of negotiations on the formation of a new government.
Micheál Martin has repeatedly said that we could not afford a four-month period of governmental inactivity and indecision.
Four months of governmental and ministerial indecision and inactivity. How would we tell the difference?
Political commentators have praised Martin for his decision. I am not going to demure. While I disagree with him on allowing another Fine Gael budget, I can see why he has done it and I accept his sincerity in doing so.
I do however disagree with the pundits when they say that Martin has played a week hand very well. Martin’s tactical handling of Varadkar since September has been skilful and does show that he has a better understanding of how Varadkar ticks than Leo has of him, but I strongly disagree with the idea that Martin was opening with a weak hand. He wasn’t.
I agree with the analysis offered by Marc MacSharry TD. in his email to Martin which Hugh O’Connell published in last weekend’s Sunday Business Post. Deputy MacSharry was correct in his assessment of the situation, particularly on Fianna Fáil being in much a stronger position than maybe it itself recognised.
Though other motives are being attributed to Martin I suspect his primary motivator is as he says : he genuinely believes he is doing this in the national interest.
Regarding any secondary interests he may have, might I suggest that they may not be as base as others think. I do not think he is simply avoiding an election because he fears the outcome, I think his most base motivation is his desire to keep the possibility of his model of “new politics” alive.
By that I mean that Martin hopes to create the conditions where, in the event of Fianna Fáil finishing up with more seats than Fine Gael, Fine Gael feels compelled to offer Fianna Fáil the same “new politics” deal he gave them in 2016. The problem with this thinking is that Varadkar is not Kenny.
But discussion of that prospect is for another day, regrettably one twelve or more months hence – though who knows what still may happen if Brexit does not proceed as planned in March.
In the meantime, have a great Christmas and I will be back here pumping out more analysis in the New Year.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney