Derek Mooney: Are We There Yet?

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From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (right) and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin during the party leader’s General Election 2020 debate on RTÉ One; Derek Mooney

According to the headline in last Friday’s Irish Times: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are close to agreeing a coalition framework document.

I am sure they are.

Comments from the two party leaders confirms this. The Taoiseach has said the document should be ready within a week or two. Mr Martin said it could act as a “catalyst” for other parties to join such a government.

Yes, the parties have made some progress, but there is still a long way to go before there will be a government in place.

The optimism exuding from Fianna Fáil sources last week that a new government could in place before the end of April with Martin as Taoiseach, was… to put it at its mildest… a bit premature.

Let’s look at the facts.  Together Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have 72 Dáil seats. If everyone votes, 80 is a bare majority.

Realpolitik – something Micheál Martin was talking about a few weeks back – dictates that any government hoping to last a full term have a majority that is northwards of 80, preferably in the mid 80s. That or a confidence and supply agreement with another big party, but let’s not go back there, just yet.

To get to 80 or above the two parties need the Greens, or the Labour Party, or the Labour Party and Social Democrats, or the Labour party and Labour aligned independents, or some permutation or combination of the above to be part of the deal.

There are also several independents in play, including (though not limited) to those who backed both Varadkar and Martin on the February vote for Taoiseach.

To put it crudely, agreeing the joint Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition framework document is the equivalent of plucking the low hanging fruit. There is a lot more reaching, stretching, climbing and grappling to be done to get the rest. And there is no guarantee that the efforts will pay off.

It is 57 days since we voted in the General Election and 45 days since the 33rd Dáil attempted to elect a new Taoiseach and put a government in place.

Under normal conditions, and we are clearly not in normal conditions now, when the Dáil is serially deadlocked and incapable of selecting a Taoiseach, the default option, one could even call it a backstop, is another election.

The possibility of another election contributes to the government formation process by setting an endpoint. The prospect of a continuing deadlock leading to an election can help concentrate the minds of the parties and individual TDs.

So, what happens in a situation where there cannot be an election and the Dáil cannot agree a new Taoiseach?

Well… nothing happens. The status quo remains the status quo and the outgoing government remains in place.

That’s what we have now. It is also what we will have for the foreseeable future. We are in a situation where that backstop… that impetus… that threat of a second election is not imminent.

Coronavirus means it is highly unlikely there could be an election any time before September or October, and even that timeline may be a tad optimistic.

To his credit, Martin and his supporters are saying in public what they are saying in private. It is not absolutely everything they are saying in private, but most of it is.

Martin may sincerely believe that a government with 85 (or more) seats, comprising Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael and another main party/parties (along the lines mentioned above) and friendly independents can be speedily put in place.

From what I hear the framework document is drafted in such a way as to give the Greens/Labour/Social Democrats most of what the FF/FG negotiating teams think they might want and need.

So committed is Martin and his inner circle to this end that they are ready to bet all their futures on it. Indeed, in the minds of many in Fianna Fáil (and that includes yours truly) they are ready to gamble the future viability of Fianna Fáil as a significant political force on it.

The always ultra-cautious, risk averse, Martin is set to go “all-in” in a game where he holds few of the cards and the other player has a number of hands from which to choose.

But Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael close to agreeing a coalition framework document was not the only political headline appearing in the Irish Times last week.

On Friday, the headline “Second general election is now a real possibility”appeared above a column by venerable political commentator Stephen Collins.

Collins said the unwillingness of the Greens, Social Democrats or Labour to join with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael made the prospect of a second election real possibility.

He was not the only one. The Irish Independent’s Kevin Doyle did the same on Saturday, though he put it stronger. He didn’t describe it as a possibility, he hailed it as a necessity saying that the Ireland of today and tomorrow is “a very different place” from the one that voted two months ago.

He is right on this last point. The manifesto promises made last February anticipated a very difficult world and a much stronger economy.

While it is easy to dismiss this talk of second elections as speculation, perhaps even brinkmanship – I am willing to wager that it is speculation based on more than a few informed discussions, discussions with sources not far removed from the Fine Gael leadership.

So, while the option Martin talks about publicly is the same one he works on privately, that is not the case for Fine Gael. This is not to say another election is Fine Gael’s preferred option, but it would be foolhardy not to recognise that the possibility exists.

Fine Gael has choices. It has options. It has these not because it has been busy out manoeuvering Fianna Fáil, but because Martin and his lieutenants have managed to somehow under manoeuvre themselves.

Many inside his party firmly believe his decision to rule out any meaningful exploration of the national unity government option was a mistake. I am one of them and, as Éamon Ó Cuív tweeted yesterday, we are many.

Rather than exploring the unity government idea and teasing out its duration or agenda and then allowing other parties to decide whether it was for them or not, Martin moved to shut down debate inside or outside his party.

He chose to steer his party into a position where it is committed to one route only. His supporters may hail it as noble and politically courageous, the act of a principled leader. They may be right, but it is not the action of a masterful strategist.

Micheál Martin the political leader, the man who would be Taoiseach, may see his suggested coalition as the one way forward, but there is another Martin, Martin the historian, who might see some feint echoes of 1948 in today’s attempts to pull all parties, bar one, together into coalition to keep that one party out.

Today it is Sinn Féin. In 1948 it was Fianna Fáil.

I have not changed my views on Sinn Féin, no more than Micheál Martin has. My problems with Sinn Féin appears as point one in the seven principles for government formation I drafted in early February and set out here five weeks ago.

I want a government without Sinn Féin, but I also want to be able to go to the pub tonight or to grab a bus into city centre tomorrow to meet friends. There are times we do not get our first wish, or even our second.

I am not filled with glee at the prospect of Sinn Féin entering government, but I grasp that these are unique times.

At this moment and for the next year or so, or until there is a viable and widely available Coronavirus vaccine, we need all the talents and political skills that are ready and willing to serve together in a unity government, serving in one.

No bans, vetos or exclusions. We have enough of those to cope with right now.

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

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8 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: Are We There Yet?

  1. Eamonn Clancy

    Hopefully there are some courageous Fianna Fail members who will scupper this insane idea. Otherwise both parties will not see out the decade.

  2. Andrew

    What are the ideals of Fianna Faíl? or those of its members? What are their goals,or principles?
    Is it just the acquisition of power and the patronage that affords to filter down to its friends?
    Is there a higher goal ta the above? A real vision for the country? If there is, please explain it to me. I don’t believe there is.
    With than in mind, it is not really surprising the Michéal Martin’s ONLY goal is to be Taoiseach and nothing else matters to him now. Don’t expect party loyalty to come before that, when the party itself has no real principles in the first place.

  3. :-Joe

    Blah de blah… SF this, Sf that… more waffle from inside the bubble….

    I hope ask-Me-hole “Joker” Martin get’s exactly what he deserves. To be that is, the first self-entitled leader of one half of the corrupt F-f/g duopoly coalition establishment ( for private anonymous foreign global financial shareholder interests before the vunerable, unfortunate and anyone else) party… to not grant him a mandate and future legacy as a democratically elected leader.

    No sane person or even anyone with basic operating brain function could argue that he deserves it without relying on dilusional thinking or confirmation bias with something to gain. To even suggest it, let alone talk about it as a potential inevitable situation, is just ridiculous. You should find a mirror, point directly at it and begin laughing.

    Varadker, the other half of this travesty, needs to F*** off as well, and let humane, adult and serious people with real leadership, character and backbone prevail.

    Democracy is already on it’s knees globally and for it to just stand up again in this Republic it requires, as a basic bare necessity, another election. A proper democratically elected leader by the people, however long it takes and not this blatent corrupt establishment cattle-auction and power-grabbing charade.

    On a side note…
    Hope you’re staying healthy derek and looking after your immune system.
    – Remember, every day you’re one step closer to redemption and being a true journalist by spilling the beans on all of the dirty tricks, lies and manipulation that you know about from your experience as a cog in the F-f/g pr spin machine.

    Keep pushing forward, I can see and believe in your potential to be great, I know you can do it !!..
    -You could even do it anonymously and become a true modern journalist/whistleblower e.g. Snowden / Assange or something like a 21st century Woodward and Bernstein might be more up your street…

    Think of the positive notariety and legacy you could gain from it….

    “The Mooney Dossier : The greatest Irish political story never told !”

    “Dark side of the Dail : A insider turned whistleblower exposes the truth !”…

    “Derek Mooney : Inside the belly of the beaASHt!”

    etc. etc. idk?… Any better title ideas anyone??

    :-J

    1. bisted

      …the one thing that comes over loud and clear from Del is that he is not inside the bubble…no matter how much he protests he’s yesterdays man…he’ll never do a grand expose because pretending to know where the bodies are buried seems to be the only card he has…he’ll make himself dizzy if he does anymore u-turns…

      1. :-Joe

        Ye but his bubble must be in close enough proximity to someone in an actual one or at least one of the real media or political bubbles somewhere… No?..

        I do hear what your saying though, lol.. but I still thnk he knows a lot more than he’s willing to tell us or anyone else anyway…

        I just can’t give into the idea that he’s sitting on his own all week staring out the window, waiting for that bit of inspiration before banging away on the good auld thoughts to opinion generator..

        Please Del, give us a sign.. Say it ain’t so…

        :-J

  4. gringo

    I am not filled with glee at the prospect of Mick Martin becoming Taoiseach but I can understand his desperation to avoid his political career turning to total failure. A failure he so richly deserves.

    1. V

      Hardly a failure

      A history teacher that went on to be the Minister for Education

      +
      Minister for Health
      +
      Minister for Trade, Enterprise & Employment
      +
      + Minister for Foreign Affairs

      And Lord Mayor of Cork

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