Today, the 33rd Dáil meets for the second time, and again, no taoiseach will be elected and the process of government formation will continue for the coming weeks.
Insider firmly expects the current government formation talks to be lengthy, but that they will eventually produce a new government - the sooner, the better given the triple threat of the housing/accommodation/rent crisis, the next phase of Brexit, and the coronavirus. Yet, the key question is not when a new government is formed, but what its make-up will be. Will it reflect how the public voted? Will it pay heed to public's demand for fresh thinking on the most pressing problems facing the State? or will it defy the demand for change.
Yes, Insider is aware that 'change' can be a 'problematic' and 'ambiguous' term, but the change people voted for in Election 2020 is very clear: to tackle the housing crisis, and begin providing social and affordable housing throughout the State; to end the dangerous situation of rents spiralling out of control; and to do what governments in this State previously had no ideological objection to doing - ensuring that citizens have access to accommodation, irrespective of how much they earn.
'FF's 22% of the vote means 78% of the people did not vote for them, while Fine Gael's 20% means 80% did not vote for them'
(Whenever Insider hears people call change 'problematic', or sees articles on her Twitter feed saying 'Change can mean anything a politician wants it to mean', she knows that change, of the kind outlined above, is seen by such people as dangerous. In other words, the status quo suits them just fine - and do not be surprised when the same people also tell you social housing is simply free accommodation for people too lazy to work... )
We have been here before. After the 2016 General Election it took 63 days to put together a coalition of Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance, with a confidence and supply arrangement with Fianna Fáil. For the first 18 months of that administration, political pundits regularly intoned, "There'll be an election in six months". In the end, the coalition proved stable and lasted four years.
So who should form the next government? A common refrain since the election has been: "Sinn Féin won 25 per cent of the vote, that means 75 per cent of people didn't vote for them. They don't have a God given right to be in government."
True, but those making that argument do not address the equally valid point that Fianna Fáil's 22 per cent of the vote means 78 per cent of the people did not vote for them, and that Fine Gael's 20 per cent means 80 per cent did not vote for them.
Such realities have not stopped Micheál Martin reaching out to Leo Varadkar with a view to forming a 'grand coalition' of the two big Civil War parties. This means we could get an administration that does not have the support of 58 per cent of the populace, and which includes the previous lead party of government which was rejected for another term by the electorate.
By any stretch of the imagination that does not confer upon FF/FG a divine right to rule either. At least the confidence and supply arrangement of the previous administration was made up of three groups which together comprised more than 50 per cent of the electorate's support. If we are going down this numerical route, may we at least, please, have some consistency.
Leo Varadkar, to his credit, seems to recognise this, and insists FG will go into Opposition - or at least he did until Dep Martin offered policy talks last week, since then informal meetings between FG and FF have taken place. Such meetings are expected to intensify and become more formal after St Patrick's Day.
It is also worth noting that both FF and FG recently met the new Dáil grouping of rural Independents, to see if they might support a government led by either of those parties. This group includes Galway West TD Noel Grealish (who called African migrants "spongers" ) and Wexford TD Verona Murphy (who said asylum seekers coming to Ireland should be “deprogrammed” as they may have been “infiltrated by ISIS” ). There has been no outcry that TDs who hold such views could underwrite support for the next government. Contrast this with the kind of language Varadkar and Martin use to describe SF.
Yes, Dep Martin has been speaking with The Greens, but as The Irish Times noted recently, this is about adding a 'changey' element to any FF/FG coalition. This is a fig leaf, a sop, a means of humouring the public, and giving the impression that FF/FG are serious about tackling climate change, as opposed to being actually committed to meeting Ireland's obligations in this regard. Green leader Eamon Ryan would do well to bear this in mind when talking to the two parties.
Insider is of the view that the people did not for SF to lead the next government, but that they certainly voted for SF to be in the next government, and to see if that party can address the two main problems facing this State: the health service and the inter-related problems of housing, accommodation, and rents.
As a former FF councillor told Insider recently: "There are two economies in Ireland. One is the economy that is growing, with near full employment, with the exchequer in surplus. Then there is the economy that people live - where they have work, but cannot afford a house, and cannot afford to save for a house or an apartment, because rents are so high and getting higher. Sinn Féin recognised this. Ourselves and Fine Gael didn't. That's why the election results are what they are."
The next government, regardless of what parties it includes, will have to address this issue. The thing is, SF does not have to be part of that next government in order for that to happen. In the 1930s, Fianna Fáil, with support from Labour, undertook the largest programme of house building the State has yet seen - and achieved this when the economy was in very poor condition.
'If FF wants to avoid a merger and paint itself as distinct from FG, then a coalition with SF, the Greens, and the Soc Dems would allow this'
An FF/FG led government could achieve this again, but it will take courage, and a will to go against their own orthodoxies. In short, they will have to be a lot more Eoin Ó Broin, and a lot less Eoghan Murphy - but that is the concern, it is very difficult to see the Civil War big two making that ideological shift. The FF position remains geared towards incentivising developers, and FG remains wed to 'the market will provide' ideology - an approach that, as the last four years have shown, has failed disastrously.
If FF/FG merge and continue this approach, then Mary Lou McDonald will become the first woman and the first SF leader to become taoiseach after the next election.
A fresh approach to housing?
There is concern within FF that, if it goes into coalition with FG, the prospect of a merger ceases to be theoretical. The differences between the parties are attitudinal and cultural, but in terms of policy, largely identical. A centre-right bloc of c40 per cent would be formidable, but does either party desire it? Right now, is it what Ireland needs?
If FF wants to avoid such a merger, and wants to paint itself as distinct from FG, then a coalition with SF, the Greens, and the Soc Dems would allow this (it may require Michael Martin stepping down as leader ), and provide the opportunity to create a fresh approach to housing - or rather, allow FF to rediscover the drive it once had to ensure that social/affordable housing is available to the citizens of this State.
Let Insider leave the last word to Chris Patten, the former Tory MP (now life peer ), and the man whose proposals transformed the RUC into the PSNI, when asked recently about Sinn Féin becoming involved in the next government of the Republic of Ireland: "It is possible to excuse people for what their antecedents might have been and to excuse people for the role that some of them may have played in history, but I think it is very important to know what the history was and if you make that decision, to make it coolly and rationally."