From top: Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald on the plinth at Leinster House this afternoon; Heber Rowan
The quote familiar to us all right now is the classic “Events, dear boy, events!”. The concern over, and response to, the Covid19 pandemic has become a proverbial cat among the pigeons of Irish political discourse.
Here’s why it may shift the balance of power.
Before the response to the virus became unavoidable by Leo Varadkar’s caretaker government, it was largely expected that government formation talks between the dead heat of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would continue for months.
Yet the recent passing of emergency legislation to bolster quarantine powers and approve a financial aid package in response to the Covid19 crisis was an indication of the need to have a working government in place as soon as possible.
There are bound to be more challenges faced by the Irish government over the coming months that will determine the efficacy of the mitigation efforts in place.
Though the Seanad clock is ticking.
The Irish constitution sets out a time limit for the Seanad elections to take place within 90 days after the dissolution of the Dáil. While the election of the senators continues at present, the Taoiseach’s 11 nominated senators are a big question mark hanging over the 33rd Dáil.
Constitutionally, the current Taoiseach and his cabinet remain in office with full powers until the election of a new Taoiseach who would then go on to select his or her ministers and thus appoint the 11 new senators to the Seanad. New laws and a new government simply can’t happen without a Taoiseach.
This could be a problem.
Despite the calls for the creation of a ‘national government’, or more technically a consensus government with a rotating Taoiseach, it is not a workable solution.
Particularly given the prerogative of the Taoiseach to request the dissolution of the Dáil at any time provided he/she gets the consent of the President. The Taoiseach holds considerable sway on national discourse and authority of government. If that authority isn’t there, the Taoiseach isn’t a Taoiseach.
Moreover, if there is fear about using cash at present from the risk of spreading the Coronavirus, there certainly will be fear about handling paper ballot papers if a new election is called. So it just won’t happen.
What may happen is that the Supreme Court might issue a writ to force the appointment of the Taoiseach’s nominees after the conclusion of the Seanad elections. In the same way that the six-month time limit was imposed on bye-elections after the high court case by Pearse Doherty a number of years ago.
New senators could be appointed in a D’hondt method allocating seats to different parties based on their share of the national first preference vote.
However, given the collapse of the ‘Independent Alliance’ there would be many non-party politicians up in arms and threatening to stymy or block such a proposal. Wearing the ‘Green jersey’ may only go so far.
What could happen is the continuation of Leo Vardakar’s caretaker minority government for the next two months until there appears to be a perceivable drop in new Covid19 cases. On the back of widespread political praise of his address to the nation, it is still a possibility that he is not yet politically finished.
Realistically though, Sinn Féin is on 35% in the opinion polls and have a lot to gain by entering government with Fianna Fáil.
Micheál Martin, the stubborn leader, won’t and claims he can’t break his promise to the electorate that he would never enter government with Sinn Féin. Extraordinary times may make for extraordinary politics.
The political wind is out of the sails of Sinn Féin, who have little to add to the national conversation at present. Health is the bigger priority now and housing appears to be improving as thousands of empty Airbnbs enter the now affordable rental market as the prices for rents plummet with thousands becoming unemployed at the same time and the collapse of the tourist industry.
How this crisis gets used to tackle the persistent problems of housing, social welfare and an under-resourced health service, are the main things people will be wondering about beyond the short term. Not who is the Taoiseach, just what gets action done.
The proposals for a rotating Taoiseach, in my opinion, are moot. To reiterate, once appointed by the President, there is no one but the President, who has the power to stop a Taoiseach from calling a new election.
The idea of three-month shifts shared between Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is laughable against the political opportunity that taking off the ‘green jersey’ presents and claiming a ‘need’ to call an immediate election once the worst of the Covid19 crisis is over.
Recent proposals by Leo Vardakar to limit a ‘unity government’ to not include Sinn Féin are indicative of how unworkable a rotating Taoiseach would be and the limited extent that the Covid19 crisis has actually shifted power. As for instance at the time of writing, there are three deaths in Ireland compared to over 4,000 in Italy.
The Supreme Court could hold out the creation of a new working Dáil on the basis of a lack of a Taoiseach (thus risking public ire) or they could expedite a quick interpretation on the nature of the Taoiseach’s nominees and have the 11 appointed proportionally.
While the Irish constitution has many provisions for the continuation of government during a national emergency, it doesn’t provide many options for persistent political deadlock like the one we face now.
A national government could be appointed temporarily but the junior partners of any government would bear the risk with little potential political gain.
It is arguable that if the crisis gets severe enough, that the hand off all political leaders may be forced for the short term, but they all know that eventually, this crisis will be over and that there will be a political and economic cost to account for at the end.
Brexit is still happening and funds, which were set aside to deal with it, are being used for the Covid19 response. Though that is a problem to face in nine months time.
Tragically the refrain of economist JM Keynes comes to mind that “in the long run we are dead”. Unfortunately for many in the short term that is not an abstract concept of economic management anymore.
As a positive note, unlike the ‘Great Recession’ of 2010, there is not an underlying problem of excess credit within the Irish economy like then and the economy has diversified significantly from an over reliance on construction.
This means that while the costs of Covid19 will be colossal, they could be short-lived. Ireland as a globalised economy traditionally recovers faster on the basis of the diversity of its industries that rely on global trade.
The swift market interventions by governments internationally may result in (merely) a short and sharp recession. There is much hope to have.
For Leo and indeed Micheál, they’re perhaps hoping that the response will be good enough to earn the trust of the electorate again. Meaning that when the cards are up, people will trust those who they know already.
Extraordinary times do call for extraordinary politics indeed.
Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.