Derek Mooney: Better Never Than Late


From top: Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney (left) and Paschal Donohe (right) with Green Party Leader Eamon Ryan at government buildings yesterday; Fianna Fáil leader Michael Martin (second left) yesterday and his negotiating team for the formation of the next government; Derek Mooney

Depending on how you look at it, when it arrives the Fine Gael/Green/Fianna Fáil Programme for Government (PfG) will arrive either 15 hours, 3 days, 9 days or 3 weeks later than expected.

This is assuming it is published sometime this morning and is not once again deferred, delayed, postponed or otherwise held up by a talks process that appears to have been designed as a slow punishment for both those who work within it and those misfortunates who must write about it.

Before I tell you why I disapprove of both the deal and the government formation it hopes to underpin, let me start out by saying something (vaguely) positive.

It is to the immense personal credit of everyone in the three plenary negotiating teams that this document made it to paper. As a piece of political communications it is not bad. Each of the teams can see their own handiwork within its pages and can each say: “I put that section there”. Though whether many of them will still want to admit this in a few years’ time, is debatable.

The primary clue to the problems lurking beneath the surface of this deal is the length of time it has taken to agree it. As any experienced political operative could attest, negotiating a coalition arrangement between three diverse parties takes time.

But this deal has taken a lot of time, even allowing for the limitations of social distancing and other restrictions. Supporters of the deal say it was vital they take the time to iron out the problems and difficulties now.

Mr Varadkar stressed this point in a recent Fine Gael parliamentary party Zoom call, saying that the 2011Fine Gael/Labour coalition PfG talks showed how issues left unresolved just fester and cause problems later.

But did we really need to take this much longer? The 2011 government barely took 12 days to put together (from Polling day to election of Taoiseach). We are now at Day 128… and counting.

If this is how long they need to address issues when working outside of the pressures of government, how much longer is it going to take them to tackle a real political crisis while in government? A government is not judged on how it delivers planned responses to planned situations but on how it responds to the unexpected ones.

These are the unforeseeable “events, dear boy” of which former UK PM Harold MacMillan famously spoke (though no one can point to where he actually said it). The political pitfalls that try the cohesion and resilience of a government.

The persistently and consistently sluggish pace of the PfG talks, including the many missed deadlines, right up to this morning should give serious cause for concern about the parties’ capacities to respond speedily to a political crisis in government.

Firm supporters of the PfG, and I hear there are such exotic creatures outside of the negotiating teams and the ranks of ministers-in-waiting, boast that this is one of the most comprehensive coalition deals ever formulated. Looking at its 100 plus pages, it is hard to say they are wrong. But we do not measure PfGs in terms heft and girth alone.

Is this a cohesive package? It contains elements that are identifiably from the parties but how do they meld together? How can you reasonably fit Fianna Fáil’s demand for greater spending on housing and health within the austerity constraints set out by Leo Varadkar?

The Fine Gael triumvirate of Varadkar Coveney and Donohue are adamant the PfG is primarily framed by Fine Gael values of fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction. But this is the very approach which voters rejected last February. Just where in the PfG is this inconvenient truth acknowledged?

On the other hand, how can you justify banning further off shore gas exploration, banning the importation of fracked gas and curtailing the planned motorway building programme at precisely the moment when the economy needs big public infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy?

How does banning gas and oil exploration and forcing us to import them instead reduce the amount we use? I totally understand why the Greens want and need this. I can even see why Éamon Ryan fears the chances of getting the 66% backing needed without these measures, but I cannot see how it makes economic sense.

The Programme for Government is replete with other policy paradoxes, from live exports, to ending the strategic housing development fast track system in 18 months or to having 2030 target dates on a range of issues.

No matter how much love, passion, conviction or heartache the negotiators put into this deal it cannot at one and the same time represent core Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green values without them being so simplified, generalised and abridged to be rendered meaningless.

My greatest criticism of the PfG however, has less to do with its contents – some of which, despite their contradictions, have merit – and has everything to do with the basic approach underpinning it.

As I have repeatedly stated here the two main parties in this deal have never faced up to what happened when voters went to the polls on February 8th.

One can see why Fine Gael hasn’t, or at least hasn’t not done so publicly. That would require them acknowledging that a large swathe of the people who voted for them in 2011 have rejected them since. Not just once, but twice. Fine Gael has watched its first preference vote drop from 800,00 (36%) in 2011 to 545,000 (25.5%) in 2016 and down further 456,000 (21%).

Despite a leadership change that was supposed to restore its fortunes, its vote has collapsed to just over half of what it was. Yet, despite this decline, Fine Gael clenches firmly on the levers of power, particularly the ones in the Department of Finance – an issue I explored here at the end of April.

You’d almost have to admire their chutzpah. They lose votes and yet cling on. They are allowed do it because the party that said it would turf them out has done a 180o turn and is now actively asking its own members to back a deal that will keep Fine Gael in office for a historic third term.

This is because the current Fianna Fáil leadership has also not yet processed what happened last February. It is a drum I have been banging on repeatedly since early March (see here, here and here), so I won’t dwell on it here today.

The bottom line is that there are three absolute truths in Fianna Fáil today. They highlight how misguided the current strategy is, but also that Fianna Fáil had options, options that gave it leverage – and may yet do that.

The three truths are:

Truth 1. Fianna Fáil TDs do not want a second election. To be fair, this could be said of almost every T.D. While Fine Gael may talk tough about a second election, their TDs know their current poll leads are soft. As a pack, Sinn Féin TDs are less worried, but individual T.D.s, especially first timers are in no particular rush to put their nice new gigs in jeopardy.

Truth 2. Almost no government can be formed without FF involvement. This is where Fianna Fáil’s leverage resides. The only alternative government formation to one involving Fianna Fáil is one with both FG and SF. While this may happen one day, it isn’t happening now. It would be politically unsellable to its own members. Whether it is Unity – all parties, National – the three main parties, or some minority government with a C&S arrangement, there are more scenarios that put Fianna Fáil in office than outside of it.

So, why has Micheál Martin rejected all talk of other options and spurned the leverage they bring? I could speculate, but I won’t. Besides, what’s the point?

Martin has made his decision. He has taken his Fianna Fáil party to this point and must deal with what happens next. He could pull it off. Equally, his strategy could yet be derailed by membership votes in his own party members and the Green party. We will know in under two weeks.

Oh, what about the third truth? It is the most painful and difficult one of all. It is the one that TDs and senators dare not say out loud.

Truth 3. Micheál Martin has fought his last election as party leader. Win, lose or draw, we will not see Micheál Martin lead Fianna Fáil into another election. Whether the next election is in 3 months, 2 years or 4.5 years and no matter what happens in next week’s members ballots, Martin’s last race as leader has been run.

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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63 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: Better Never Than Late

  1. Formerly known as

    It doesn’t inspire confidence. Michael might be the last leader of FF. It would serve Ireland well to move on from civil war politics, with parties based on ideologies, not which side you were on in 1922.

  2. goldenbrown

    yaaay so it’s Greenwashed Austerity 2.0

    the slow bicycled 128 days? well there’s no puzzle there, that’s simply the length of time they figured it would take the voting public to forget the rhyme and reasoning they used when voting back in February at the polling stations enabled by the massive forgive n forget bonus ball of Covid-19 thrown in for good measure.

    winter’s coming, the dust will have settled and in addition to all the original issues we had we will start to realise just how deep the hole we are in has become….as the narrative has turned to introducing water charges again….

    my crystal ball sayz:
    -18 months max
    -Greens screwed
    -FFG formally merge
    -SF will run 2x candidates

    a very rough ride ahead!

    1. Cian

      -18 months max. That’s what they said in 2016! I’d give it a good 3 years.
      -Greens screwed. Agreed. But they are screwed regardless – if SF put more candidates forward they will be taking Green & Independent TDs
      -FFG formally merge. Not in the next 4 GEs
      -SF will run 2x candidates. Hopefully. But they won’t get 2x TDs.
      To add to that:
      – FF & FG will run 25-30% fewer candidates OR run much tighter campaigns with very well defined hierarchy of order – e.g. everyone votes Anne #1; Bob #2 and Ciara #3. Then we definitely get Anne elected, probably Bob and maybe Ciara. They can’t afford to split the vote three ways and get nobody in.

  3. Daisy Chainsaw

    We voted for change but we’ll be lucky if we have loose change after 4.5 more years of FFG. SSDD

    1. Rob_G

      If people had really ‘voted for change’, FF nor FG would not be in the position to lead the next government.


      1. bisted

        …if the greens hadn’t betrayed the movement for change which included them in their preferences…fixed that for you…

      2. GiggidyGoo

        Are you trying to say that people who voted for FF, voted for them to go into government with FG, and vice versa? Ha haaaa.

    2. Cian

      FF, FG, and the Greens have a majority of TDs (85 of 160) and together they got a majority of first preferences.

      1. GiggidyGoo

        And are you saying that FF voters voted for them to go into government with FG (remember Mickey Martin ruled that out)?
        Are you saying that FG voters voted for FG to go into government (remember Varadkar ruled that out too)?

        What are you actually saying Cian?

        1. Cian

          It is quite simple:
          I’m saying that people that voted for FG wanted FG in government.
          People that voted for FF wanted FF in government.
          People that voted for the Greens wanted the Greens in government.

          And these three groups of people together comprise a majority of voters.

          As you are aware no one party got more than 25% of the TDs. Even two parties together can’t form a government. At least three parties need to compromise to form a government.

          1. bisted

            …spin it whatever way you want Cian but the ‘green surge’ did not happen…as well as betraying the people who wrongly assumed they were part of the movement for change…they have betrayed all those young people who assumed they were motivated by environmental concerns rather than the lure of power and pensions…

          2. ReproBertie

            “they have betrayed all those young people who assumed they were motivated by environmental concerns” by agreeing a PfG laced with environmental concerns.

            The people who voted Green wanted the Greens in government and it may just be that’s what they are getting.

          3. bisted

            …sure…Eamon Ryan had one of the safest seats in the Dail…trouble is…about 10 of those elected owe their seats to people they’ve betrayed…shame on them…

          4. ReproBertie

            Betrayed those who voted to get them into government on the back of a green agenda by attempting to go in to government with a green agenda.

          5. bisted

            …those who voted green on Eamon Ryan’s Liberal agenda failed to elect the other ten deputies…ok…they were included in the preferences of people who gave their number 1s elsewhere but thinking they were voting for change…shame on them misrepresenting their pursuit of power and pensions under the convenient banner of the environment…sorry Greta…

      2. bisted

        …every new green TD will know how many first preference votes they got…they will also know where the transfers came from that got them over the line…

        1. Cian

          They got 12 TDs elected; 5 were ‘easily’ elected; 4 were the last across the line – but that matched their FP; and 3 were very lucky with the transfers.

          Eamon Ryan [Dublin Bay South – 4] 1st FP; elected on 1st count
          Catherine Martin [Dublin Rathdown – 3] 1st FP; 1st elected
          Ossian Smyth [Dún Laoghaire – 4] 2nd FP; 1st elected
          Joe O’Brien [Dublin Fingal – 5] 3rd FP; 2nd elected
          Neasa Hourigan [Dublin Central – 4] 3rd FP; 2nd elected

          Steven Matthews [Wicklow – 5] 4th FP; 4th elected
          Francis Noel Duffy [Dublin South-West – 5] 4th FP; 4th elected
          Brian Leddin [Limerick City – 4] 4th FP; 4th elected
          Roderic O’Gorman [Dublin West – 4] 4th FP; 4th elected

          Patrick Costello [Dublin South-Central – 4] 5th FP; 3rd elected – got loads of transfers.
          Marc Ó Cathasaigh [Waterford – 4] 6th FP; last elected
          Malcolm Noonan [Carlow–Kilkenny – 5] 7th FP; last elected

          Net election, if SF have more candidates and FF/FG have fewer/better strategies; then the greens should keep 5; struggle with the 4; and lose the 3. End up with between 6 and 8?

          1. Zaccone

            Thats a great post, thanks for that.

            (edit: being genuine, not sarcastic. I guess thats sometimes hard to tell on a comments section)

  4. The Old Boy

    This is going to be monumentally disastrous for the Green Party. In a few weeks, we will see a Fianna Fáil government propped up by the Greens – again. While Martin is Taoiseach, FG are going to behave exactly as FF did under confidence and supply, with a few ministerial roles as a consolation prize. It’s an appalling vista that will disgust a huge number of Green voters. The party’s maddeningly amateurish structure is already falling to pieces over it. A party that goes from two seats to twelve in the space of a few months should be euphoric, but the Greens are working hard to make it a grubby shambles.

    Then you can add the fact that aggressive carbon taxes in the teeth of a recession will mean the Greens will get the blame when granny has to decide whether to heat or to eat come the winter (whatever the truth of the matter might be.)

    1. Cian

      The greens got many of their seats because SF didn’t run sufficient candidates.
      Regardless of what happens now, if in the next election, SF run more candidates the Greens will lose most of these seats.

      IMO the Greens are correct to go into government while they can.

      1. The Old Boy

        I’m not sure that the Green Party owes such a large portion of their electoral success to the fact that Sinn Féin didn’t manage to capitalise fully on the swing in their favour. No doubt if Sinn Féin had run the “ideal” number of candidates, all the other parties would have lost out. What going into government in this formation does is lose the Greens a lot of credibility with the younger demographic, from which a lot of their votes come and in which they have to fight toe-to-toe with Sinn Féin for support.

        I don’t think the apparent policy of entering government at any cost to voter support is a particularly good way of becoming a long-term force for sustainable environmental policy, although it is very much a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t situation.

        1. Rob_G

          I mean, you could be right. But we have 8 years to save civilization from catastrophic climate change; the Greens don’t have the luxury of time to wait for their dreamteam of coalition partners to come along.

          1. Ghost of Yep

            You couldn’t give a poo if the Greens got in to enact Green policies.

            If FF/FG made up the numbers with independents you would not have been here now posting how not having a Green presence is trouble.

            You wouldn’t send an email to the new government demanding change. You wouldn’t tie yourself to a gate in protest. You shake that tree when it suits.

          2. GiggidyGoo

            Get a placard ‘The end of the world is nigh’
            Have you looked at the globe Rob? See the size of Ireland? Do you honestly think that a country this small, with a waster like Ryan leading the green charge will make any difference? Will overtaxing us (the Irish) make any difference. Look back at the globe. What do you think?

        2. Cian

          You’re right – only 3 were ‘lucky’. See my comment above for a breakdown.
          If there was another election new in 2020; I see the greens getting 6-8 seats only (which means they lose 8-6].

  5. GiggidyGoo

    The impression that Martin, Varadkar and Ryan by signing off on the document is the end of the matter, is far from the reality. FF and the Greens will have their work cut out to get it past the members. Both Micheal martin and Eamon Ryan speak with forked tongues.

    The reality is that the Greens know their goose will be slow-cooked if they prop up (again) FF. Micheal Martin’s goose is already cooked anyway. Eamon Ryan’s is just about done. Varadkar’s goose will be cooked come next election – gas mark 5 won’t save him next time round.

  6. Johnny

    How a FF political expert just could ignore all the deaths in care facilities and the impacts its going have on the next govt epitomizes why the electorate is sick and tired of FF and FG- but yeah thanks for the Mac quote this is more apt for the greens…”I was determined that no British government should be brought down by the action of two tarts”…

    “The spectre of lonely care home deaths hangs over the government”
    “Of all of the UK’s mis-steps in tackling coronavirus, the epidemic among the elderly is the worst”
    “At the top of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, the spectre of care homes hangs heavily. Ministers insist that they had tried to “throw a protective ring around care homes”. But these words sound hollow for families who have endured elderly relatives like Harry dying alone. Not everyone could have been saved, but not everybody needed to be lost.”

  7. class wario

    remember after the GE when all the usual suspects were chastising SF for not clobbering together a government with about 8 different groups in record time? why were they not so pressed for time when it came to FF/FG?

    1. ReproBertie

      Were SF given a deadline? No, so what have they been doing about forming a government for the last almost 130 days? Happy to take another 5 years in opposition rather than step up to the plate and guide the country out of a looming economic mess.

      1. GiggidyGoo

        We haven’t a government yet. We have a document. A bit like the backstop actually at the moment. 130 days later as you say, and still no government.

        1. ReproBertie

          I’ve reread my post and don’t see where I said we have a government.

          Are SF in talks with anyone to form one?

          1. GiggidyGoo

            I think that you know that SF haven’t the numbers at the moment. No point in stating the obvious. You’re commenting on an article that is trying to say that we almost have a government, and you bring SF into the mix, stating that they can’t form a government and that they willl be in opposition for five years. . In other words, you’ve tried to give the impression that we have a government now.

          2. ReproBertie

            Class wario brought SF into it. I was responding to their comment about SF being under pressure to form a government by pointing out their total lack of interest in doing so which speaks volumes of their happiness to sit in opposition.

          3. Rob_G


            Given that you understand this, why are you throwing such a strop over the only possible combination of parties that can actually form a government? This hodge-podge is what was elected, I’m afraid you will just have to lump it.

          4. GiggidyGoo

            Hilarious Rob. You’ve a gathering of three parties two of which who swore blind they wouldn’t go into government with each other, and stood for election based on that false premise, and a flowerbox party that hasn’t learned anything from being the crutch for FF.
            Why are throwing a strop over people telling it as it is?
            PfG is nothing only a list of pie-in-the-sky waffle. Ryan actually believes that his party members can’t see through it?

          5. ReproBertie

            I see MLMcD saying SF will provide the best opposition. Doesn’t she know we don’t have a government yet?

    2. Rob_G

      Well, SF have had exactly the same amount of time to form a government as anyone else – there’s still nothing stopping them from stealing a march on FFG and forming their own government, if they can get the numbers together.

      1. GiggidyGoo

        Silly boy.

        FG – ‘we won’t go into government with FF’
        FF – ‘we won’t go into government with FG’

        Both parties have ditched any trust their members had in them.

        Haven’t had one of these for a while now. Here goes R O F L ! !

        1. ReproBertie

          Imagine politicians willing to put aside their differences to work together to try and provide a government for the state.

        2. Rob_G

          See this is what grown-up political parties do – negotiate, make compromises, and (eventually) form a government. Not leave their voters without any form of government while they sit and sulk for 3 years.

          1. Johnny

            Grow up posters don’t constantly bring up the IRA from the 70’s to besmirch modern day SF-but there’s always one oul lad stuck in a moment he can’t get out off.

          2. Rob_G

            Well, current SF TDs keep singing rebel songs, shouting ‘Up the Ra’ at gatherings, and attending commemorations for dead IRA child-murderers, so not all that surprising that it comes up from time to time

            (also, you are the one who brought it up in this thread)

          3. Johnny

            Yeah Rob-your not some Ra obsessed oul fella not at all,the GFA was signed over 20 years ago.
            Cone join us in 2020 even the unionists and victims of the IRA have moved on,it’s called peace-but keep fighting the war there Rob,you small minded little man.

          4. Rob_G

            Again Johnny, you’re the person who brought it up. On the foot of some criticism of SF that had nothing to do with their campaign of terror, but rather their legislative inaction – funny, that.

            And I’m much younger than you ;)

          5. Rob_G

            As does your seniority :)

            Just a cranky old man, railing against the decisions made by the electorate…

          6. Johnny

            The Were Left To Die: Care Assistant Reveals Criminal Neglect at Dublin Nursing Home

            -Residents abandoned, left without food and water
            -Up to 75% of deaths avoidable
            -Residents left in inhumane conditions
            -7 staff sacked after raising concerns
            -HSE/HIQA Cover-up


            Given me a bullet and my bible any-day before the horrid death these old people suffered at the hands of FG.

            But the RA the RA in 1970 …….

          7. Rob_G

            I see that your evidence for these extraordinary claims are a tweet from some rando from a far-right political party.

            So, I wil take these claims with a big pinch of salt.

          8. Johnny

            Circle the wagons lads and its always misogynistic oul fellas like yourself Rob that rubbish the whistleblowers,is it because she’s a woman – why dont you try listening to what the lovely lady has say about FG and the avoidable totally needles and unnecessary suffering of these loved grandparents sent to their deaths by FG.

            UP THE RA-yeah Rob lets just shoot the messenger,there’s a lot more transparency terrorists in FG than in modern day SF !

          9. Rob_G

            You’re really clutching at straws, Johnny – have a nice time with your new pals in the Irish National Front :)

          10. Johnny

            ..remember this exchange and how your too small minded to separate message from messenger,lets just all look away shall we-it does look all rather unsavory and unpleasant,best pull the curtains tight on this one Rob…

            Getting back to that night in 1970,it was wet and rainy…those brave and courageous Brit squaddies that you admire so much, were about raid another house and throw those murdering taig b** onto the street…

          11. Rob_G

            See, what’s happened here is that I don’t believe your story – which already stretched credibility, and which emerges to have come from the Irish nazi party – and you’re pretending that I’m not listening to it because I don’t like the source.

            The rest of your post is a load of waffle.

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