Betting markets have consistently supported the idea that a Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil (not-so) ‘Grand Coalition’ is the most likely outcome of the 2016 election. This might be in part because it seems the only ideologically-coherent majority government that can be formed. There is an assumption that an election result must yield a government, and our experience suggests that most seemingly intractable differences quickly become tractable.
But the events of 1981/82 show that while governments tend to be formed the ones formed will not always be the most stable option available. Why did we not then see a Fianna Fáil/ Labour coalition? In 1987 a minority government was formed. The government formed will be the least politically costly one.
This is why the Fine Gael/ Fianna Fáil coalition is highly unlikely. It’s too politically costly for the smaller party.
Barring shocks it is more than likely that Fianna Fáil will be the smaller of the two parties, and though the party could have close to 40 seats, it will be aware that smaller parties nearly always suffer in government. Labour had close to 40 seats in 2011 and now looks like it will return closer to ten. Labour has the disadvantage of being more ideologically distinct from its coalition partner and having to govern in a recession – two problems Fianna Fáil wouldn’t face – but the risk of being subsumed by the bigger party is still real, especially when Fianna Fáil has very few stars beyond its leader.
Even if Fianna Fáil wasn’t worried about this prospect, because the likes of Timmy Dooley are eyeing up their ministerial mercs, there are procedural hurdles. It is not the parliamentary party that makes the decision. In 2013 the party changed rules to that:
“A draft programme for government must be presented to voting members of the organisation for approval at a special Ard Fheis before any such government can be formed” with a “one member, one vote basis to accept or reject the draft programme.”
Last year the Fianna Fáil Ard Fhéis approved a motion to rule out a coalition in which Fianna Fáil is the junior partner, and it’s likely those same voters would reject any deal to elect Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.This might be for visceral reasons (which are significant), but it would also be for rational ones.
If Fianna Fáil is at 40 seats and Fine Gael at 55 seats, Fianna Fáil will know that it’s once again within touching distance of being the largest party. It might have little to fear from a second election, especially one at the time of its own choosing. The new parliamentary party will have some new faces and talent, which may take the male and stale look off it (although Pat the Cope, Jackie Cahill et al. hardly do that). Martin will be strengthened sufficiently to downgrade Éamon Ó Cuiv and John McGuinness – who will piss all over the tent regardless of whether they are inside or out. It could be his party. Its success in the 2014 local elections mean that Fianna Fáil will do well in the Seanad elections and so defeated Dáil candidates can be given experience as full-time politicians.
In government Martin wouldn’t have the time or energy to deliver this rebuilding effort, and government is a dangerous place for a party. It usually means making unpopular decisions. And one thing that we can see for smaller parties in government is that once they are in government they get locked in. Compromise becomes easier because the alternative – leaving – usually means an election. You find yourself accepting things cumulatively, which you would never have originally accepted.
The other problem for Fianna Fáil of such a coalition is that it leaves Sinn Féin, which at 15 percent must be disappointed, as the main party in opposition. That would put further pressure on another front for Fianna Fáil and allow Sinn Féin portray itself as the main basis for an alternative government. If Labour had gone into opposition in 2011 we could be looking now at Éamon Gilmore as the next Taoiseach. By remaining in opposition this is Fianna Fáil’s mantle.
So what is likely to happen. Martin won’t want an immediate second election. I suspect that in the interests of ‘stable government’, ‘the country’ etc. Fianna Fáil will eventually abstain from a vote to elect Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. They won’t do this on March 10th. They’ll want to see him rejected at least once, as this will damage Kenny’s image and reputation. This will force a minority Fine Gael government (perhaps with Labour) to form issue-by-issue coalitions in which Fianna Fáil will be able to extract visible concessions from the government on issues.
Rather than having to leave government, Fianna Fáil will have a much stronger bargaining position because each vote will be one whether it supports government. It won’t be locked in. It could then vote against the government when it pleased, but give an assurance that it would abstain in confidence motions. Fianna Fáil could then choose to end this arrangement and, in say 16 months, could force an election on an issue and timing that suits Fianna Fáil. This could be the election that makes it the biggest party again and makes Micheál Martin the Taoiseach.
This isn’t a risk free strategy. It will be reminded of the impact on Fine Gael of the Tallaght Strategy. In this case Fine Gael appeared powerless and irrelevant. Fianna Fáil’s job is to make sure that it is heard. Fianna Fáil would need to be careful not to be seen as blocking decisions for partisan gain.Kenny has been badly exposed as a campaigning leader in this election, but he was by most accounts a good chair of cabinet. If he were an effective chair of a government that happened in the open – reasonable, willing to listen and make concessions – his popularity might increase.
More likely is that Kenny would stand down after a period (his age means this would not be humiliating for him). A new Fine Gael leader, such as Varadkar, would be a much more difficult proposition for Fianna Fáil. It would have a dilemma to allow the new leader be elected Taoiseach or to cause an immediate election. Martin might look stale in comparison. It’s likely that it would not want to allow the new Fine Gael leader be elected Taoiseach because this would give him or her the advantages of office and being seen as a Taoiseach. This means that Fianna Fáil wouldn’t necessarily get to choose the issue or timing of a subsequent election.
That’s a risk worth taking. After 14 years a minister Micheál Martin will think that a good chance of becoming Taoiseach beats the certainty of being Tánaiste any day.