As the dust settles on a tumultuous General Election, attention turns to the central question – who governs? If this looked like a conundrum in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, then if anything a solution is even less apparent on this occasion.
With SF now in contention for a place in government it does open up a number of possibilities. As a starting point, we need to consider how the various groups feel about themselves and their attitude to government formation.
The performance of SF underlines how quickly things can change in politics and how we should learn to expect the unexpected. After last year’s local and European elections the party was on the floor and, up until Christmas expected this election to be a ‘salvage and regroup’ exercise. However SF managed to latch onto the anti-FF/FG mood among large sections of the electorate, and after a number of promising opinion poll ratings, built up an irresistible momentum.
Its biggest mistake in retrospect will be not having run more candidates. Insider has however also heard it remarked that the leadership will find it a challenge to manage an enlarged parliamentary party containing a number of inexperienced politicians, some of whom up until last weekend had poor electoral records.
One important factor in SF's surge is that, unlike previous occasions, the party made it clear it wanted to be in government; previously, it either ruled this out or confined it to a largely theoretical left-wing alliance. It was interesting to look behind the data in the final Irish Times/MRBI opinion poll, which found that for 43 per cent of SF supporters, the preferred election outcome was an FF/SF coalition. It will be interesting to see if there are any tensions between this group and some of the party’s newer, urban-based, members who may favour a left-wing alliance.
FF may have regained the crown as the largest party, but it ran an appalling election campaign - one of the most incompetent Insider can recall from any party. It has been commented that Micheál Martin was a little below par in the TV debates and interviews, but the problem was more fundamental than that; FF was ill-prepared, its manifesto and campaign more generally resembling a teenager’s homework cobbled together on the schoolbus that morning.
Continuing with that theme, FF made a number of ‘schoolboy errors’ such as producing a manifesto riddled with typos and signing pledges before later deciding they were unconstitutional. The weakness of the party’s frontbench was also apparent, something it should have foreseen and been better prepared for.
'Fine Gael lived up to its reputation as a party that will always test the gun on its own foot'
FF now finds itself in a difficult position. On one level, the party needs to be back in government to regain some relevance; an FF/SF coalition on paper also looks the obvious outcome to this election. On the other hand, a coalition between any two of the big three parties will leave the ground open for the third party to become a dominant alternative force. With this in mind, some in FF favour leading the opposition.
An FG/SF coalition appears to be a non-runner while in the event of an unlikely multi-party left-wing coalition, it is arguable that despite being marginally smaller, FG would be better placed to lead the opposition to it. FF’s preferred outcome had been a coalition with smaller centre-left parties, but this now looks a non-runner as it would require a confidence and supply arrangement, most likely with FG and that is surely out.
If there was one thing that saved FF from an outright drubbing it was FG, which lived up to its reputation as a party that will always test the gun on its own foot. While An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was competent in media performances, the tone of the party’s campaign was all wrong. It was dripping with a sense of entitlement and at times it was as if the party was intent on correcting the public’s mistake in not buying into the ‘keep the recovery going’ mantra in 2016. The party also made some dreadful candidate errors, such as the selection of gaffe-prone senator Catherine Noone and the whole Verona Murphy debacle in Wexford.
'While the Greens and Social Democrats will be very pleased by their performances, Labour remains marooned on six seats, one fewer than before'
In one sense though, the party is in a more relaxed position post-election. Bad and all as the result was, it feared in the closing days that it was going to be even worse. Emerging in a broad three-way tie gives it the opportunity to regroup. FG is unlikely, for the time being, to become involved in government talks, although that may change if a protracted stalemate continues. FG however needs to have a look at itself and the direction in which it is going; allegations of being too centred in the Dublin bubble are to be heard loud and clear among the grassroots, with the party having a particular problem in its former Munster and south Leinster heartlands.
Triple Left Alliance
The TLA was forecast to be a key player in the next government, possibly coming together to agree a joint platform for government with either FF or FG. That now appears unlikely, at least in that form, but the constituent parts of the TLA may still have a role to play. In the meantime, it can look back at a successful election campaign, forecasts of up to 20 seats having been exceeded after taking a combined 24 seats.
While the Greens and Social Democrats will be very pleased by their performances, Labour remains marooned on six seats, one fewer than before. This is important as it surely raises questions for the party as to whether it wishes to be in government. A similar debate to that within FF is likely to rage within Labour. The Greens, in contrast, are very keen to get back into government. This also sums up one of the problems with the whole TLA concept - its constituent parts would have differing objectives post-election. Looking at the group as a whole, might it be in their best interests to continue in opposition to an FF/SF coalition?
Despite forecasts of their demise, and a number of high profile retirements, the independents still did respectably well. All five outgoing TDs across the three Galway constituents were returned, a particularly impressive achievement when one considers the SF surge - Noel Grealish and Sean Canney turning in notable displays. We also saw a number of newer independents returned across the country, and in some cases such as Waterford we even saw a retiring independent passing the baton to a replacement. On the flip side, a number of independents who served in government lost their seats.
'There is one other option, and Insider has heard it whispered, not with any great enthusiasm. That is a second election'
Looking at the 20 independents who have been returned, approximately two-thirds are from either the FF or FG gene pool or are of the ‘rural community’ background, with the one-third from Labour, SF, or other left-wing backgrounds. This is important when we consider the type of government that is put together. We should bear in mind that even an alliance involving two of the three main parties will not command a majority so the independents may again be important.
What chances then of a government coming out of this? After the stalemate of recent years, the unsatisfactory confidence and supply arrangement, lack of government with any authority, and a ‘do-nothing Dáil’, there is a feeling we need a proper majority government to address the key issues. Insider sees three options.
The first moves will be made by SF. The party is already talking to other left-wing groups, ostensibly with a view to putting together a left-wing government. This however is fraught with difficulties. First of all, the numbers; while an SF/TLA/PBP alliance gets to 66, that still requires another 15 independents (or Peadar Tóibín from Aontú ) for a bare majority. With only six or seven of these being of that inclination, and this including two former SF TDs who are on very bad terms with their former party, this is a big ask. In addition, as Insider noted above the TLA may not be inclined to act in unison.
The next option would be a FF/SF coalition. On 75 seats this would be five seats short. Many of the FF gene pool independents and some other rural independents would be more inclined to support this however and it looks doable. There is also a possibility that the Green Party and/or Social Democrats will join, thereby giving it a very comfortable majority; Galway West TD Eamon Ó Cuív is of the view that SF’s early talks with other left-wing groups is designed to bring a third party into the talks with FF.
A third option is for FF and FG to enter into a ‘grand coalition’. Quite incredibly this is also short of a majority, but, with a large cohort of like-minded independents should cross the line. This however would run contrary to the ‘change’ message delivered by the electorate. Both parties will also be of the view that it has not been in their interests to be joined at the hips in recent years and will be wary of any such arrangement. This would surely only be as a last resort, possibly as a temporary arrangement to get through the Brexit process.
On no, not again
There is one other option, and Insider has heard it whispered, not with any great enthusiasm. That is a second election. Some people have jumped to the conclusion that SF would welcome this but Insider would caution that we have seen in other countries (Spain and Israel for example ) that this is not necessarily a panacea, in particular with the electorate being in such volatile form. As Insider said at Christmas, the opening months of 2020 were likely to be full of political instability and interminable talks. It is coming to pass!