Healy-Rae: FF mi­nor­ity govern­ment on cards

If he had not re­alised it be­fore now the Taoiseach is play­ing se­nior hurl­ing in the game of his po­lit­i­cal life, writes Jody Cor­co­ran

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Front Page - Jody Cor­co­ran

IN­DE­PEN­DENT Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae has dra­mat­i­cally warned Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar that a Fianna Fail-led mi­nor­ity govern­ment could be formed without the need to have a gen­eral election.

As in­sta­bil­ity around the fu­ture of the cur­rent Fine Gaelled ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tin­ues this week­end, Mr Healy-Rae yes­ter­day said a new govern­ment led by Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin was a “sim­ple so­lu­tion” to the cur­rent un­cer­tainty.

And Mr Healy-Rae also said that Fine Gael would have “no choice” but to sup­port such a mi­nor­ity govern­ment for two years. Fine Gael cur­rently has 49 seats in the Dail to Fianna Fail’s 45, but fol­low­ing the res­ig­na­tion of for­mer Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter De­nis Naugh­ten last week, Mr Varad­kar’s con­firmed govern­ment ma­jor­ity is re­duced be­low the re­quired 57-seat level, al­though the Taoiseach is ex­pected to se­cure enough votes to sup­port his new ap­point­ments to the Cabi­net on Tues­day.

In light of Mr Naugh­ten’s res­ig­na­tion, and ahead of cru­cial Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions, Mr Martin last week wrote to Mr Varad­kar to state that ir­re­spec­tive of the out­come of the re­view, “we should both agree not to bring down the Govern­ment” and should con­tinue to pass leg­is­la­tion un­til Brexit had cleared the “crit­i­cal hur­dle” of rat­i­fi­ca­tion in the House of Com­mons and Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment.

How­ever, the Taoiseach is de­mand­ing a two-year ex­ten­sion to the cur­rent ‘con­fi­dence and sup­ply’ agree­ment with Fianna Fail, which is to be re­viewed fol­low­ing the Bud­get last week.

The Taoiseach is also con­sid­er­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of seek­ing the dis­so­lu­tion of the Dail and call­ing a gen­eral election, de­pend­ing on the out­come of Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions this week and next month.

How­ever, Mr Healy-Rae yes­ter­day warned: “If Leo is not care­ful he could end up shoot­ing him­self in both feet.”

He added: “I would re­mind the Taoiseach that, last time, it was very much a pos­si­bil­ity that a Fianna Fail-mi­nor­ity govern­ment would be formed, in that there were a num­ber of peo­ple, very many peo­ple, will­ing to sup­port it had Fianna Fail re­ally pushed for it at the time.

“Leo needs to be very care­ful what he wishes for now, be­cause I would say it is not far-fetched at all, by no means out­ra­geous to sug­gest that Micheal Martin could now put to­gether the re­quired 57 votes to form a mi­nor­ity govern­ment.

“That would be a very cred­i­ble al­ter­na­tive, a new govern­ment and a new cabi­net of min­is­ters, and I would also sug­gest that the peo­ple of Ire­land would sup­port it, as it would avoid a costly and un­wanted election at Christ­mas time, and when Brexit is at this cru­cial stage.”

Mean­while, Gal­way West TD Noel Gre­al­ish last night said that, af­ter a meet­ing with Tanaiste, Si­mon Coveney and a lengthy con­ver­sa­tion with Mr Varad­kar re­gard­ing Brexit, “I have de­cided to give the nec­es­sary sup­port to the Govern­ment dur­ing this cru­cial stage of Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions.”

He said: “Ire­land is now en­ter­ing one of the most crit­i­cal and un­cer­tain phases since the foun­da­tion of our State and it is in the best in­ter­ests of our coun­try as a whole that we have a sta­ble Govern­ment at this cru­cial time.

“I have also spo­ken with Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin, and I be­lieve that there is a com­pelling pub­lic in­ter­est that must be served at this time, which out­weighs the in­ter­ests of any politi­cian, in­di­vid­u­ally or col­lec­tively.”

‘The Pres­i­dent will be watch­ing events un­fold with a view to stak­ing out his place in his­tory’

WILL this be the most im­por­tant pres­i­den­tial election in the his­tory of the State? That is a ques­tion you did not ex­pect to be asked in a week of high drama at Le­in­ster House.

And here is an­other not asked un­til now: is Micheal Martin weigh­ing up an au­da­cious and very po­lit­i­cal coup to form a Fianna Fail-led mi­nor­ity govern­ment within months?

But let’s not get ahead of our­selves.

As the Pres­i­den­tial election chugs along, re­cent de­vel­op­ments in Dail Eire­ann may at­tach even greater sig­nif­i­cance to the out­come.

The Pres­i­dent may be asked by the Taoiseach, Leo Varad­kar, to dis­solve the Dail for a gen­eral election be­fore the end of the year. What will the Pres­i­dent do? En­ter Micheal Martin last Fri­day: there is no need for an election, Mr Pres­i­dent; Fianna Fail will con­tinue to sup­port the Govern­ment un­til the Brexit with­drawal process is as­sured.

In a stroke, he has boxed in Varad­kar, who is an­gling for an gen­eral election this year on the back of a Brexit deal.

By sup­port, Martin could mean Fianna Fail will not only ab­stain, but, if needs be, vote to pass the fi­nance and so­cial wel­fare bills to give ef­fect to the Bud­get by Christ­mas.

The Pres­i­dent, let’s say Michael D Hig­gins, re­serves a spe­cific con­sti­tu­tional power to refuse a Taoiseach, who has lost the sup­port of a ma­jor­ity of the Dail, to dis­solve par­lia­ment.

So, who­ever wins the Pres­i­den­tial election on Oc­to­ber 26 could tell a re­sign­ing Taoiseach to seek to form an al­ter­na­tive ma­jor­ity un­til the ink is dry on what­ever Brexit deal may emerge.

That Pres­i­den­tial con­sti­tu­tional power has never been used be­fore.

But the for­mer Pres­i­dent Mary Robin­son is said to have threat­ened to use it had then Taoiseach Al­bert Reynolds sought an election af­ter the Fianna Fail-Labour govern­ment col­lapsed in 1994.

The Rain­bow Coali­tion of Fine Gael/Labour/Demo­cratic Left was sub­se­quently formed without re­fer­ral to the Aras or re­course to a gen­eral election.

Here is the ques­tion, though: could Micheal Martin ul­ti­mately form an al­ter­na­tive Fianna Fail-led govern­ment to avoid the re­quire­ment for an election at all for an­other two years?

Af­ter all, that is what Leo Varad­kar and a bevy of Fine Gael min­is­ters and TDs have said is re­quired — a fur­ther two years to see through the next phase of the Brexit process, the ne­go­ti­a­tion of a UK trade agree­ment with the EU.

So, is Leo Varad­kar about to be hoist with his own petard?

Again, we are get­ting ahead of our­selves. So let us rewind.

The most im­por­tant ne­go­ti­a­tions in the his­tory of the State, or in liv­ing mem­ory, or in a long time in any event, have reached a crit­i­cal stage.

This week the Taoiseach will at­tend an EU sum­mit which will re­veal the UK’s in­ten­tions on Brexit.

For the first time, we will see more clearly where the process will end, ei­ther with a bor­der on the is­land of Ire­land or down the Ir­ish Sea be­tween Bri­tain and North­ern Ire­land.

It may be that the full pic­ture will not emerge un­til the fol­low­ing month, with an­other meet­ing in Brus­sels ten­ta­tively sched­uled for Novem­ber 15, a fort­night af­ter the Pres­i­den­tial election here.

The ram­pant spec­u­la­tion is that Varad­kar will re­turn from the Novem­ber meet­ing, seek to dis­solve the Dail and call a snap election for De­cem­ber 7 to seek a new man­date, all re­lated to Brexit.

But there is a lot of risk to that spec­u­la­tion: there are many vari­ables, not least the time­frame so close to Christ­mas.

First off, it may be that no agree­ment will be reached in Brus­sels, or that the deal ar­rived at will not be suf­fi­ciently “bul­let proof” to al­low Varad­kar claim suc­cess and go to the coun­try.

Leav­ing that aside, it may also be, in­deed it is far more likely, that what­ever agree­ment is ar­rived at, will fail to get through the House of Com­mons.

In that out­come, there may well be an­other election in the UK, the out­come of which is im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict, al­though it should not be blithely as­sumed that Labour will emerge the vic­tors.

In­deed, the big­gest mis­take Theresa May made last time was not nec­es­sar­ily to call the election to strengthen her ma­jor­ity, but to have a seven-week cam­paign which al­lowed the election to be­come about ev­ery­thing other than Brexit.

In any event, in such a sce­nario Leo Varad­kar may also use a UK election as an op­por­tu­nity to call an election here, if you like, a si­mul­ta­ne­ous ref­er­en­dum on Brexit on both is­lands.

How­ever, that sce­nario is fraught with dif­fi­cul­ties. There is still no guar­an­tee, for ex­am­ple, that post-election the new govern­ment in the UK would get any pro­posed Brexit deal through the Com­mons.

Fur­ther­more, nei­ther is there a guar­an­tee that Fine Gael would ‘win big’ in an election here, and even less so that a new govern­ment would be quickly formed post-election, even with ne­go­ti­a­tions over the Christ­mas break pe­riod.

In short, a pre-Christ­mas election here, while Varad­kar’s best and most favoured op­tion, is be­set with un­cer­tain­ties, mostly though not ex­clu­sively re­lated to the Brexit process, which it­self, at best, looks like cul­mi­nat­ing in an­other su­per fudge.

Now let us look at the cur­rent Dail arith­metic: Fine Gael has 49 seats, Fianna Fail 45.

Af­ter events in re­cent weeks, and last week in par­tic­u­lar, along with the In­de­pen­dent Al­liance, and the In­de­pen­dent min­is­ter Kather­ine Zap­pone, Fine Gael is still three short of a bare ma­jor­ity.

Leo Varad­kar is in a sit­u­a­tion where he must now of­fer up to three In­de­pen­dents sep­a­rate deals to con­tinue to hob­ble along.

And all of this at a time when the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions are at a most crit­i­cal phase.

And also at a time when the lat­est opin­ion poll shows a halv­ing of the gap, with just five points be­tween Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, as pre­dicted here last week (if I may say).

Last Fri­day, Micheal Martin wrote to Leo Varad­kar ask­ing that they both agree not to bring down the Govern­ment in this crit­i­cal Brexit pe­riod “ir­re­spec­tive of what hap­pens in the con­fi­dence and sup­ply re­view process”.

In other words, he has ef­fec­tively of­fered a na­tional govern­ment, if you like, for the next few months, into the new year.

So, if needs must, in the com­ing months Fianna Fail would not just ab­stain, but could ac­tively vote with the Govern­ment to pass the fi­nance and so­cial wel­fare bills, to en­sure the Christ­mas bonus among other things.

What greater act in the na­tional in­ter­est would there be at this crit­i­cal phase in the na­tion’s his­tory, goes the ar­gu­ment.

In one fell swoop, of course, Leo Varad­kar is also de­prived of his favoured, but po­ten­tially reck­less op­tion of go­ing to the coun­try be­fore year’s end.

No doubt, Pres­i­dent Michael D Hig­gins will be closely watch­ing as events un­fold this week­end, with a view to pos­si­bly stak­ing out his own place in his­tory.

Now let us de­velop fur­ther the emerg­ing sce­nario.

With Fianna Fail in full sup­port of the Govern­ment, a de­tailed re­view of the con­fi­dence and sup­ply deal could be­gin with no un­due time pres­sure.

Micheal Martin has al­ready in­di­cated that this will be no cur­sory re­view; in­deed, that he in­tends to look closely un­der the bon­net in the de­part­ments of hous­ing and health in par­tic­u­lar, be­fore ne­go­ti­a­tions on a re­newal, or ex­ten­sion, of a new con­fi­dence and sup­ply deal would start.

And who knows what he will find un­der those bon­nets?

In any event, the closer one looks at the lat­est de­vel­op­ments, it is pos­si­ble to di­vine the emer­gence of a po­ten­tial Fianna Fail strat­egy.

Was it al­ways, or has it long been Micheal Martin’s in­ten­tion to re­place the Fine Gael-mi­nor­ity govern­ment with a Fianna Fail-mi­nor­ity govern­ment without re­course to an­other election?

His of­fer of such a tem­po­rary ‘na­tional govern­ment’, is dif­fi­cult for Leo Varad­kar to refuse; fur­ther­more, and un­doubt­edly, were an election to be held shortly af­ter Brexit phase one any­way, Fianna Fail would likely re­ceive a mea­sure of ku­dos for its ges­ture at this crit­i­cal time in the na­tion’s his­tory.

It also re­mains pos­si­ble, al­though, ad­mit­tedly, at this stage re­mote, that be­tween now and a res­o­lu­tion of this phase of Brexit, Micheal Martin could (at­tempt to) make up the num­bers with smaller par­ties and In­de­pen­dents and, it would fol­low, oblige Fine Gael to sup­port such a two-year Fianna Fail mi­nor­ity govern­ment.

Af­ter all, and as I have said, in the Taoiseach’s own words, a fur­ther two years of sta­ble govern­ment is re­quired when the most com­plex trade talks in the world, ever, get un­der way at some point in 2019— that is if an ac­ci­den­tal ‘no deal’ is not what Varad­kar comes home with next month.

The Green Party, for ex­am­ple, could be of­fered the cli­mate change port­fo­lio with the prom­ise of the in­tro­duc­tion of a car­bon tax in the next Bud­get; the Healy-Rae broth­ers would be nailed on; ditto Mat­tie Mc­Grath, Noel Gre­al­ish, Michael Collins; also at least half, maybe three-quar­ters of the In­de­pen­dent Al­liance, Boxer in­cluded; Michael Fitz­mau­rice would have a close look. So would Sean Can­ney. Ask your­self, which of these In­de­pen­dents would pre­fer an election?

And that would leave Fianna Fail with 57 seats, a bare ma­jor­ity, but hardly enough to form a sta­ble govern­ment.

But as I say, we are get­ting ahead of our­selves.

There is one thing for sure this week­end, how­ever — if he hadn’t re­alised it be­fore now, Leo Varad­kar is play­ing se­nior hurl­ing these days, and he is in the game of his po­lit­i­cal life.

Mean­while, here’s look­ing at you, Michael D.

But first, to Brus­sels for more Brexit this week, next month and next year, the out­come of which will be far more im­por­tant than what­ever do­mes­tic machi­na­tions are afoot, how­ever in­trigu­ing those machi­na­tions may turn out to be.

HOIST WITH HIS OWN PETARD?: If Leo Varad­kar ac­cepts Micheal Martin’s of­fer not to bring down the Govern­ment in this crit­i­cal Brexit pe­riod, he would be de­prived of a le­git­i­mate ar­gu­ment to go to the coun­try be­fore year’s end

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