There’s seldom a dull moment on the Irish political scene and as the presidential election reached its zenith this week, the real fun and games begin as the country’s two biggest political parties sit down to see if they can negotiate a new deal to avoid an election over the coming months. PJ Cunningham reports.
Just as the landscape looks for all the world like delivering an early general election in Ireland, suddenly the planets aligned in a political sense, resulting more in favour of a longer-term approach to a general election.
First with Brexit negotiations limping from one cul-de-sac to the next, the importance of continuity has been underlined by all sides.
It led to the country’s biggest opposition party Fianna Fail (FF) asking the government to pledge that it would not call a snap election while this delicate situation was still to be resolved.
FF leader Micheal Martin told his counterpart, Taoiseach Leo Varadakar, that he would offer on-going support in the short term if both sides were agreed on this vital issue.
Since making that declaration, other factors have come into play which have encouraged both sides to believe that maintaining the status quo is the best option.
At the centre of all this speculation is the expectation that FF will renew its support for the minority Fine Gael and Independent Alliance government by giving the thumbs up to a new ‘Confidence And Supply agreement’ which in effect keeps the government in power once the biggest opposition party abstains on major voting issues.
This arrangement caters for FF having a certain input into policy-making while it also allows them to build up in the polls where they have been trailing badly until the weekend.
In the wake of the recent budget, they closed the gap on FG – something that might appeal to Mr Martin’s instincts to stick rather than twist as the cards are currently being dealt.
The poll has given a three per cent boost to the opposition party, closing the gap on their rivals to a mere eight per cent. This is appetising politically so that when FF and FG sit down this week, probably Thursday, to hammer out an extension to their support agreement, finding a solution might be easier than was anticipated even a week ago.
Obviously, such an accord allows the FG side to continue in power while FF know that if they can continue to rise in the popularity stakes, they could be in a position to seriously challenge the biggest party by the time the next election takes place in 12-18 months time.
But this strategy won’t be pursued at any cost. The FF leader made it clear he will not agree to new conditions or deadlines of a month as part of talks which the Tanaiste,
Simon Coveney, was trying to put in place.
However, Mr Martin said he would be happy if his party was part of a “substantive” review without the “spin” which he claimed Mr Varadakar’s party seems increasingly to favour.
The Opposition leader said his focus now is on “delivering stability until the risk of a no-deal Brexit or a major last-minute change is overcome.” Mr Coveney stressed that the two parties would enter negotiations to discuss the “kind of political priorities that we think the country needs to prioritise for the coming months and years.”
He too instanced Brexit as a priority consideration while also highlighting the need to provide the right environment for sustained economic growth.
Fine Gael and the Taoiseach make no secret of the fact that they would like to push out a general election until the summer of 2020, giving him at least another 18 months at the helm in the Dail.
For that, he needs the basic support of FF on key areas such as budgetary considerations and when motions of no confidence arise.
Fianna Fail’s finance spokesperson, Michael McGrath, said they would enter these talks with a keen sense that the outcome must foster the country’s interest during Brexit and longer-term planning.
He was adamant that there should be no election until the Brexit problems between the UK, EU and Ireland were “resolved from the Irish perspective.”
Both parties are aware that the public won’t thank them if they fail to come up with an outcome which post-pones the idea of going to the hustings for at least one more budget.
On balance, the stars are in such a place that it suits each side to talk tough but ultimately settle on a solution that gives everyone breathing space.
The prospect of trying to conclude Brexit while parties desperately try to come up with a new administration is in nobody’s interest – and the parties know the Irish electorate is watching over this particular issue like few others in recent history.