The leaders of Ireland’s two biggest parties agreed before Christmas that because of Brexit they would avoid a General Election until 2020. PJ Cunningham, in Dublin, is not entirely convinced and thinks this year’s European and local government elections could yet see Fianna Fáil pulling the plug on Leo Varadkar’s minority Fine Gael government.
Beware of politicians bearing gifts. In Ireland just before Christmas, Micheál Martin the leader of the Opposition in the Dáil told Leo Varadkar and his government that his Fianna Fáil would guarantee no election in 2019 by continuing the terms of their existing ‘Confidence and Supply’ agreement.
Following the 2016 general election, they agreed to support Fine Gael for three budgets so that their opponents could form a minority government with the help of some independents.
Mr Martin said he was prepared to elongate this arrangement because he was putting country before party and didn’t want the Republic to be at any disadvantage during the vital months of the Brexit negotiations. It was a move in “the national interest”, he stressed.
That altruism might not be all that it appears on first reading. Certainly, Tánaiste Simon Coveney appeared gobsmacked by, what he called, the “maturity” of the response of his party’s century-old arch enemy.
Another FG minister, Regina Doherty, described the Fianna Fáil decision as “incredibly responsible” given the unknown ramifications that could emanate from the threat of Brexit.
After weeks of negotiating and review Fianna Fáil played hardball on the government’s record on both health and housing but ultimately decided that the greater good should prevail.
It was music to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s ears when his biggest political foe declared that it was vital Ireland maintained a united Government “while the chaos in Westminster continues.”
The FF supremo emphasised that the “political chaos we see in London will not be allowed to spread to Ireland.”
In a follow-up tweet, he said: “We simply do not believe that the national interest could in any way be served by taking up to four months during next year to schedule and hold an election campaign and then form a government.
“This is why Fianna Fáil will extend a guarantee that government will be able to operate throughout 2019. This will allow the introduction of any emergency legislation and budgets, as well as the full end of year Budget and associated legislation. This will in turn allow the holding of an election early in the following year.”
But pacts are often made to be broken and by ostensibly giving the imprimatur to another 12 months of an FG minority government, the reality may turn out to be much different.
For a start, Brexit is the dominating political topic across Europe but particularly in Ireland and the UK.
However, once decisions are made by the end of March, the future on that score will be much clearer – we will most likely either have a deal, no deal, or a delayed deal.
All thoughts will then turn to two barometers which could have much more relevance on the timing of the next general election – the local government and European Parliament elections at the end of May.
For all the self-sacrifice of party that Mr Martin is espousing at this juncture, he will find it very hard not to alter his posture should Fianna Fail increase their already biggest party status in the local elections.
And if that was intertwined with an improved showing in the Euros, the enticement will be such that he could then apply pressure on government failures – especially in health and housing – before declaring he has no choice but to cut to the hustings.
As of now, there is every chance that by the time of next May’s elections, the Brexit denouement will not be good news for any government, but particularly the Varadkar administration.
This will be added grist to the mill for Mr Martin, who could quickly change his status from saint to sinner with those currently in power should he renege on a year-long agreement.
FF’s Finance spokesman Michael McGrath said the voters wouldn’t forgive any party if they did anything to hamper the Brexit negotiations and they would also remember that Fianna Fail had done the right thing in supporting Fine Gael since 2016.
Other parties weren’t so understanding with Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald saying the agreement was nothing more than “political theatre”, adding that it was astonishing that without bargaining for anything further, Fianna Fáil were happy to prop up this government.
“They seem happy to have more of the same, the same failures,” she pointed out.
The Labour Party’s leader, Brendan Howlin, said FF’s “do-little” pact was an insult to the Irish people.
Mr Martin explained that there had been “disagreement on issues of delivery” in the negotiations and FF would keep the government under pressure in these areas.
That sounds like an opportunity should their own support rise sharply that they scope to pick a fight that will bring the government down on their timing rather than when it suits Mr Varadkar to decide to pull the plug on the current administration.