Fianna Fáil’s three-year deal to support Fine Gael’s minority government is near an end, PJ Cunningham reports
After brushing up on their tans, Ireland’s Dáil deputies, who earn about £85,000 a year basic, return to work next Tuesday after a summer holiday that lasted a mere 67 days (a few days shy of a 10 week recess).
The last week will have disturbed their prolonged break by the intervention of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, writing a letter to the leader of Fianna Fáil, Michéal Martin, seeking support for his Fine Gael and Independent coalition to last two more years.
Ireland has had a ‘new politics’ style government over the past few years whereby Fianna Fái, in a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, agreed to support the Varadkar administration for the duration of three budgets once the Cabinet hit some pre-arranged targets with the economy.
Leo’s letter last week asked FF to extend that agreement, obviating the need for a general election later this year or maybe next year.
All seems above board until you factor in the meeting by both leaders during the summer where Martin said such a blank cheque would not be forthcoming.
So was there a hint of mischief in the air when the Taoiseach put pen to paper to ask the same question again? Was he really trying to put poor Micheál on the back foot before the Dail assembles next Tuesday, making out that if there was to be an election, it was the other side’s fault that it occurred.
His missive came at a time when Fianna Fáil is being riddled from all sides. It seems like they are damned if they do from within the party itself and damned if they don’t by Fine Gael for not extending their acquiescence to Government.
And there is a third damnation – from Sinn Féin for… well, for being the other Republican party. A case of someone trying to steal the former emperor’s clothes!
The shadow boxing continued through the week between the big two in Irish politics as the Taoiseach claimed a sense of disappointment that he had not got the assurance he sought.
“I decided to be very transparent and write a letter to Micheál Martin and put it all down in black and white, and after five days to publish it so people could read it for themselves,” he explained.
Basically what he asked for was an agreement that the next election should be the summer of 2020, giving his government almost two years to sort our Brexit, homelessness and the huge queues for treatment in the Republic’s hospitals among other pressing demands on public money.
Mr. Martin criticised the Taoiseach for providing a less than full picture of what he was seeking, stressing that there were serious deficiencies regarding the emergency in houses and the crisis “in our health service.”
He added that he didn’t see any real veracity in his claim that the government couldn’t function properly without such an extension to the confidence and supply agreement.
While the two political alpha-males are locking horns, Mary Lou McDonald and her Sinn Fein colleagues are trying to stir it up between the two Civil War parties in the hope that they can benefit most from the fall out.
And there is no doubt that with the demise of the Labour Party, Sinn Féin is poised to be the next smaller party in government.
While they fan the fires under the feet of both the government and FF, they know that they are in a win-win position.
Their first preference would be for FF and FG to join together in a proper coalition government next time, thereby giving them extra oxygen by becoming the main opposition party.
That would probably see them grow as it is generally accepted that the other two parties would end up cannibalising each other’s support in such a situation.
More likely to happen is for SF to enter with FF or FG and thus taste life from the government benches for the first time since the party fractured into Cumann na nGaedheal (a forerunner to Fine Gael) and Fianna Fail back in the twenties.
It was De Valera who splintered from SF back then, bringing most of that party with him. Revenge for Mary Lou and her cohort has been a long time coming, but is unlikely to be served cold.
If sparks are already flying before the Dáil sits, expect heated debate and possibly a bonfire of the vanities as the major parties jockey for pole position in the event of an election in the coming months.