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
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