It seems clear that some members of Fianna Fáil may have their “tails up” because of the very significant
improvement in seat numbers and in their share of the General Election vote. This positive feeling which
they have about themselves contrasts with the sense that Fianna Fáil was a toxic political brand from
And we should not under-estimate their members’ feeling that they have now been “forgiven” by the
electorate. The last Government obviously wanted to keep Fianna Fáil “in the dock” politically speaking,
not least with their exaggerated hopes that the Banking Inquiry would damage the party in the
immediate run up to the General Election. That hope simply never translated into votes.
But today’s poll (Sunday Business Post 13-3-2016) should also cause senior Fianna Fáil figures to think
again. A clear majority of voters want a stable inter-party Government to take office. Support for some
form of minority government commands only a fifth of popular support – less even than those
masochist voters that just want a re-run of the election.
More significant for FF is the fact that the majority of their own supporters favour the inter-party
majority Government choice. Although it is true that the level of support for that option is significantly
higher among Fine Gael supporters, the fact remains that only a small minority of FF supporters want a
re-run of the election. The idea of a “Tallaght Strategy” support for a minority government does not
command anything like majority support among FF voters.
On top of that is the underlying fact that a snap re-run of the election would probably produce a similar
result. Even if support for independents would fall in that scenario (which is by no means clear), a re-run
election would most likely not produce a radically different set of post-election choices for FF They could
conceivably come back with less seats and a weaker bargaining position that they have at present.
Are we witnessing a genuine FF strategy of non-participation in government with Fine Gael? Or are we
witnessing an elaborate, drawn-out softening up process in which FF are “playing hard to get” in order
to obtain the maximum leverage over FG in a political game that is located somewhere between stud
poker and “chicken”?
If there is eventually to be an inter-party FF-FG government based on the principle of equality, there will
have to be a great deal of leadership shown by the leaders of FF and FG.
Which brings me to the question of the FG leadership.
No party likes the idea of ditching its leader at the behest of outsiders, least of all at the behest of its
rival. But the question that does arise is as to whether Enda Kenny can credibly aspire to remaining
Taoiseach in a new administration that would in any sense appear to be “new”. Fairly or unfairly, he had
a “car crash” election; fairly or unfairly, he is “damaged goods”?
If the leap of faith required to get the republican Clann na Poblachta into an inter-party government in
1948, required that FG, although the larger party, should agree to someone other than its leader acting
as Taoiseach, as it did, the same might well be thought to apply even more to the formation of an FG-FF
or FF-FG government in 2016.
It isn’t a question of a “head on a plate”; it is a question of freshness and favourable winds for any new
government. Many were taken aback that Shane Ross would negotiate face-to- face with Enda Kenny
and almost immediately use a newspaper column to launch his “political corpse” exocet. It would be
hard to describe that behaviour by Ross as statesman-like.
But I think it is equally hard to argue that the national interest – or indeed the Fine Gael interest – really
requires that Enda Kenny should remain in office as Taoiseach in any new government.
If the identity of the Taoiseach – or of rotating Taoisigh is an issue – the people are likely to become
quickly critical and dismissive of any unreasonable game-playing on the matter.
In my judgment, the electorate would punish very severely any party which they see as causing another
general election for narrow party advantage. To that extent, the “election re-run” scenario is simply a
non-runner in the poker-playing that will go on over the next few weeks.
That leaves us – and each of the larger parties – with an effective choice between a “support for a
minority government from outside” or a “participation in a partnership FG-FF government” scenario.
I won’t repeat what I wrote here last week about the “madness” of the first option in present
circumstances. Today’s poll figures confirm my view that the voters are well ahead of the two major
parties in their analysis of the issue.
While it is true that both FG and FF sought support in the General Election on expressed and repeated
assurances that they would not coalesce after the election, that was the only position either could take
in the circumstances.
FG could not have “wobbled” on coalition with FF without being seen to stab Labour in the front.
FF could not have recovered their vote share and doubled their seats by posing as a party that “might”
re-elect Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.
But let’s be clear – FF sought and obtained absolutely no mandate for supporting Enda Kenny as
Taoiseach from the outside. Nor did they seek or obtain any mandate for a second election in weeks.
Both FG and FF impliedly sought votes on the basis of being realistic “parties of government”; neither of
them sough votes on the basis of staying in opposition.
So public opinion now demands of each of them that they should work with the seats the people have
They can have their “tails up” or their “tails down” for the next few weeks. Neither mode will help the
one of them that receives a political boot in the posterior in the event of their causing a second election.
This all suggests that the real inter-party negotiations will soon begin between small teams of trust-
worthy interlocutors operating on an exploratory, confidential, “nothing is agreed until everything is
The teams will have to include more than just the present party leaders for obvious reasons. The agenda
will have to be comprehensive, forward-looking rather than backward looking, and reformist and
ambitious for Ireland.
If the two parties are to survive the experience of sharing power, they must be clearly seen to act on the
principle of equality. After all, in terms of first preference votes, they are separated by no more than a
The airwaves and newsprint are no place to negotiate – as Shane Ross’s gaffe shows. Posturing on public
“red-line” issues is as pointless as references to “core values” were back in 1989.
Ireland needs and deserves good, stable government. Those who can deliver it owe it to us all to do so.
Those who hesitate and look backwards for their vision should remember the current graphic road
safety TV campaign against motorists looking back.
Anyone who ignores today’s poll findings should be wary of the very real likelihood of a car crash