This time last week I expected the only issue that would be resolved at Thursday’s opening Dáil session was the identity of the next Ceann Comhairle.
To no one’s great surprise that turned out to be the outgoing one, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, TD., though the scale of his win, 130:28 was impressive. The dark mid-week mutterings that Fianna Fáil colleagues would abandon the avuncular Ó Fearghaíl to keep his vote for Micheál Martin as Taoiseach later that day proved baseless.
I hadn’t expecting the series of votes on electing a Taoiseach to produce any significant or notable movement on the shape of the next government, so I was pleasantly surprised when we did get some, albeit infinitesimally small.
The decision of the left-wing Independent TDs and Solidarity/People Before Profile to back Mary Lou McDonald (though with a strong caveat of ruling out Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) and four independents to back Micheál Martin left both challengers with over 40 votes.
This left the other two challengers, Leo Varadkar with 36 votes and Eamon Ryan with 12 in the second division.
The positioning remains the same when you just rank them by the numbers opposing their nomination. From lowest to highest, in Division 1: McDonald on 84 and Martin on 97 and in Division 2: Varadkar 107 and Ryan on a whopping 115!
Though not earth shattering it does help clarify, perhaps even narrow the choices facing the TDs in forming a government and points to three clear options.
First: A left-wing government headed by Mary Lou McDonald. While Sinn Féin repeatedly declares this to be its preferred option, saying it opposes putting Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in office, its studied outrage at Fianna Fáil’s refusal to talk to it about forming a government does seem… well, odd. Mary Lou led the field on Thursday thanks to eight left wing votes that were all given on the basis that she does go into government with either of the two big parties.
Second: A government headed by Martin and led by Fianna Fáil. Such a government could take two forms: a simple trio of FF/FG/Greens (with the possible option of a rotisserie Taoiseach) or FF/Greens/SocDems and assorted middle ground Inds, all supported from the outside by a limited form of Fine Gael confidence and supply.
Third, another general election.
The ferocity of McDonald’s personal and political attack not just on Micheál Martin but on the wider Fianna Fáil party simply highlighted the fact that options one and two are now mutually exclusive and any kind of fourth option involving SF and FF is off the table.
All of this increases the pressure on Fine Gael. Varadkar’s impromptu strategy of taking his party entirely out of the process has badly misfired.
Fine Gael cannot sit idly by and hope the blame falls on others. No matter how much it wants to slink away into the shadows and lick its wounds, it must take a decision based on these three options.
Fine Gael either (a) sits on its hands and facilitates Mary Lou McDonald becoming Taoiseach; (b) opposes everyone and leads to a second election, or (c) comes to some sort of agreement with Martin’s Fianna Fáil on either going full-on into coalition or supporting it from the outside via a some less restrictive confidence and supply agreement.
Such an arrangement could require FG to back the government on key votes to prevent the government from collapsing but allow it to vote against and defeat it at other times.
While the odds on this process resulting in a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green party and independent government have increased ever so slightly, there is still a long way to go.
Some of that long way will likely include some fallout from within the Green party as it tires of its involvement in government being assumed to be automatic.
On RTÉ One’s The Week in Politics two Sundays ago the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern suggested that Fianna Fáil should seek a coalition with Fine Gael, that it also include as many partners as possible to give the sense that the new government represented some real change.
He hinted that he could eventually see a government with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Green, Social Democrat, independent and rural independent ministers.
It will be difficult, if not impossible, to put together a government along these lines as the Social Democrats have made abundantly clear that they do not want to put Fine Gael ministers back in the office.
They are not the only ones.
The Fianna Fáil representatives I have spoken with over the past week are every bit as opposed to putting Varadkar, Murphy, Harris or Donohue back in office.
Former Fianna Fáil TDs – and it should be remembered that there are now eight of them thanks to Fianna Fáil’s lacklustre and uninspiring #GE2020 national campaign – and outgoing Senators are currently criss-crossing the country taking to party councillors and hearing just how unhappy they are with developments.
These 14 – 16 newly minted Senators will join the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party in early April, fresh from a month of listening to dissatisfied grassroots. If a government including Fine Gael has not been formed by that point, then these Senators could be critical in blocking its formation from inside the parliamentary party.
Right now, as we approach the end of February, I still think a second election is the single most likely outcome. I say this as the only thing required for another election to happen is for TDs, primarily Fine Gael TDs, to do absolutely nothing.
Avoiding a second election requires action. It means having Fine Gael TDs break their own red lines and back a Fianna Fáil led government – from within or without.
If we are to face into another election, even if it is two or three months away, then parties need to start honing their core message and start addressing the wider public, not their own bubbles.
Sinn Féin appears to have realised this and has resumed campaign mode – as if it had ever turned it off. Last Monday we saw Mary Lou McDonald doing the Macarena with a group of school kids in Ringsend. It was a clever piece of political marketing.
Here was McDonald looking like an approachable leader without a care or a pressure in the world. Out among ordinary people, seeming confident and even self-deprecating, a trait that Irish voters like. This contrasted with the sense that both Varadkar and Martin were, though separately, withdrawn not just from public view, but from the public itself.
It was a masterclass in brazen misdirection. It is what Sinn Féin does best. They’ve had plenty of practise at it over the years.
When they came under huge pressure in early 2005 over the violent and brutal provo murder of Robert McCartney, Sinn Féin representatives, including one Mary Lou McDonald MEP and one Deirdre Hargey MLA, were dispatched to mouth concern for the McCartney family while opposing European Parliament support for the case and asserting that Sinn Féin was really the victim here, on foot of a conspiracy involving the main political parties, the police and the media.
Does this all sound familiar? Add in a few extra public rallies and it could be today.
This is not a distant history in time or place. In a Dáil debate on May 27 2009 a Fianna Fáil back bench TD raised the intimidation of Esther Uzell, whose brother Joseph Rafferty had been killed by the provo-IRA in April 2005.
She had called on Sinn Féin to help identify her brother’s killer, not only did they not help, they did anything but. The TD was rightly incensed, calling those responsible for the intimidation “thugs” and “scum”.
That Fianna Fáil TD later became a Sinn Féin Councillor and, in February, a TD., Chris Andrews. Seems that the change in party heralded a major change in outlook. Come to think of it, didn’t that happen to Mary Lou too?
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 Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney