Under Article 28.10 of the Constitution, Enda Kenny must resign from office if a motion to nominate him as Taoiseach is defeated on Thursday 10th March.
If that happens he places his resignation in the hands of the President. In that case every other member of the Government shall be deemed also to have resigned, but they will all be obliged to carry on their duties until their successors are appointed. They will be caretaker members of the Government.
President Higgins will have an absolute discretion to refuse any request by Enda Kenny that the newly elected Dáil be dissolved, and he will also have a discretionary power, having consulted the Council of State, to ultimately convene a meeting of the Dáil and to address the Houses of the Oireachtas on the necessity of forming a government if the parties can’t sort out government by themselves.
That is the constitutional background to the goings-on between the parties and TDs in Leinster House between now and Thursday.
It is hard to see how Enda Kenny can amass a majority of TDs bearing in mind that he would need the support of 22 other deputies (in addition to the FG and Labour total of 57) to obtain an overall majority.
Clearly, Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny are attempting to amass the most votes they can for rival motions nominating them as Taoiseach – even though it appears that every motion to appoint a Taoiseach on Thursday will be defeated for want of an overall majority.
A temporary political initiative and advantage would lie with the defeated candidate with the most votes on Thursday. Since Labour are resigned to going into opposition, they will support one motion for Enda Kenny and will then be free to vote as they wish on later motions.
If Enda loses a vote for Taoiseach, the leadership of Fine Gael is immediately thrown in issue. Under party rules, there must be a vote on the leadership.
But even if Frances Fitzgerald or Leo Varadkar or a slightly bruised Simon Coveney is made leader of Fine Gael, the mathematical problem of creating a government without Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin still remains. Labour might support such a Government from outside. But which 22 independent TDs would also prop up such a government, and on what terms and for how long?
Public opinion will not countenance another election and will punish very severely those who are seen to be putting party interests before the national interest.
So while FF and FG can play a little poker for a short period after Thursday and engage in the pretence of seeking alternatives to forming a partnership between them, the only viable government which does not involve Sinn Féin remains a partnership government between FG and FF. Those parties are, despite their shrill pretences to the contrary, ideologically compatible. They have a viable Dáil majority of more than 90 seats.
With an acceptable Taoiseach (whoever that may be!) and a good programme for government, and a spirit of equal partnership between them, they could give the country what it badly needs – solid, reforming, progressive government for four or five years.
Will Micheál Martin augment his 44 seats by creating an alliance with, say, 10 other TDs so as to rival Enda Kenny, or a post-Kenny Fine Gael, in subsequent votes for Taoiseach and so as to create the impression that his bloc is bigger than the FG bloc – all with a view to making a case that he should be Taoiseach for some or all of the term of an FF-FG government?
Could he somehow equalise the FF-FG ratio by welding a number of independents onto FF and by giving them some cabinet presence? That might make an equal partnership government easier to sell to his party and the people.
If Labour is intent on staying out of office to re-group, and if Sinn Féin are intent on not joining any government led by FF or FG, the light will slowly dawn on FF and FG that they must provide a government.
Neither of them has sufficient strength to govern alone in some re-hash of the Tallaght strategy. And the Tallaght strategy itself did FG no favours.
Stanley Baldwin famously remarked that “power without responsibility” was the “prerogative of the harlot”. Supporting a minority government from outside is the opposite- “responsibility without power” – and is equally unappetising.
Only those at the Cabinet table have control over the agenda and the public service; only they hear the legal and expert advice on government business; only they can deal with foreign governments.
External supporters are in the same position as the toddler twiddling the plastic steering wheel on his rear seat kiddy chair.
In short, both FG and FF would be mad to allow the other to govern alone; they would be equally mad to govern alone at the whim of the other awaiting the first political crisis.
In case you haven’t noticed, the industrial relations horizon is looking very dark and cloudy. The comrades are getting militant. The public sector unions are flexing their muscles. A minority government would not be up to them.
Water charges and property tax moratoriums will expire in 24 months’ time. How would a minority government cope with such issues?
The international economic outlook is looking dodgier than before. Europe is in choppy waters. Brexit might still happen.
We need a strong government with a united policy programme.
Finally, there is the argument that Sinn Fein would dominate the opposition and emerge as the alternative government. That fear has some substance. But Sinn Féin would still be a minority within the opposition benches facing an FG-FF government. There would be many other parties around them – Labour, Greens, AAA-PBP, Socialists, Social Democrats, “Healy Rae Nuas”, “Lowristas” and
Ordinary Decent Independents and Shane Ross Independents.
But we had an election to choose a government for the next five years – not to choose a government to take office in five years. There is no reason to believe that Sinn Féin would fare badly in a second snap election. The big losers in a snap election could be the two big parties who couldn’t accept the people’s verdict and who chose to put self-interest before the people’s interest.
A decent FG-FF equal partnership coalition with a challenging policy programme to be implemented over 4 or 5 years will take another six weeks to put in place. It is worth waiting for.