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Leah Farrell/
minority report

Fine Gael is still wooing those 'Endapendants' - but there's an 'elephant in the room'

Analysis: Fine Gael is serious about a minority government without Fianna Fáil, but it will eventually have to talk to the old enemy.

71 IS THE new magic number.

The men tasked with getting Fine Gael back into power see 71 as their goal. An agreement with 71 TDs is 71 votes in the Dáil. That means that Labour’s seven deputies would have to side with Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin to bring down any minority government.

But how likely is it that the two negotiating Simons – Coveney and Harris – will hit their target?

With the Taoiseach in the US for St Patrick’s Day last week, the pair – along with other senior Fine Gael ministers – were left to continue what had been constructive but inconclusive talks to form such a motley crew.

With Fianna Fáil having set out its position that it wasn’t, at this stage, willing to engage with Fine Gael while making its own efforts to form a minority government, ministers Coveney and Harris saw an opening and held further talks with several independent TDs and smaller parties.

The result is that the two Simons and others in the senior echelons of the party now believe they may be able to cobble together a minority government, with perhaps as many as those all-important 71 Dáil votes.

Plus, Fine Gael believes Labour is amenable to supporting a minority government on a case-by-case basis and might abstain on some votes.

Ultimately the aim is, as one source put, “to be in a position where you can’t say we didn’t try to form a government without Fianna Fáil”.

Fine Gael sources believe there is scope to agree with independents and small parties on a few defined common policies to address pressing issues like housing, health and rural Ireland.

Cabinet positions will inevitably come up but not until towards the end of the process. Each party and grouping of independents would have to have some link to government which could mean a ministry or junior ministry for each one.

But who are the independents and small parties? 

The 71 ‘Endapendants’, as they’re being dubbed, would include the 5 rural independent TDs led by Denis Naughten, the Independent Alliance, the Green Party, the two Healy-Raes and non-aligned independents such as Katherine Zappone and Maureen O’Sullivan.

Others who may come into play include the SocDems, who have suggested they will support a minority government on an issue-by-issue basis, and other independents like Catherine Connolly, Seamus Healy and Tommy Broughan.

Lengthy talks with some, but not all, of the above will take place tomorrow in Government Buildings and, if they’re fruitful, will continue on Friday.

Last night, Coveney reported much of this to the Fine Gael parliamentary party. There’s only one problem. Few, if any, believe this will actually be possible. As one Fine Gael TD put it:

Simon is the eternal optimist. He sees the good in everyone.

One independent TD involved in the process was even more frank, saying:

Fine Gael are living in cloud cuckoo land if they think they can agree a minority government without the inclusion of Fianna Fáil. That’s not going to happen.

Fine Gael might get to the mid-to-high 60s, but they will not get to 71, many believe. Even among those independents involved in the talks there is little appetite for what the independent TD said is “a temporary little arrangement for six months”.

Publicly and privately, most independent and smaller party TDs involved in these talks believe a stable government can only be formed with the involvement of Fianna Fáil.

“For any government you have to ensure the numbers work. For a stable and viable government, Fianna Fáil, Labour, [and] the Soc Dems all need to engage,” Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, who’ll be involved in tomorrow’s talks, said.

It has to be wider than 71 to have any chance of surviving… if it’s going to work it can’t be a government in the mid 60s. We’ll be making that point.

Where is Fianna Fáil? 

For its part, there is unease within Fianna Fáil at the party having failed to filled the vacuum that has existed over the last 10 days. In contrast to Fine Gael, its negotiating team of Michael McGrath, Barry Cowen, Jim O’Callaghan and Charlie McConalogue have been virtually silent in their public remarks.

One Fianna Fáil TD said that the party should have been filling this vacuum by getting some its newly-elected deputies out and about talking about its policy priorities. Instead there has been silence and hardly a word from party leader Micheál Martin.

The talk of Fianna Fáil forming a minority government has faded. One senior TD acknowledged late last week that if Fine Gael formed a minority government then Fianna Fáil would have to accept that and work with its old foe “on an issue-by-issue basis”.

“If we can get our issues through, then we’ll play ball,” they said.

But still Fine Gael has made no approach to Fianna Fáil about this. Its rationale is, as Enda Kenny explained to his own TDs last night, that if Fine Gael were to do this it would immediately collapse talks with the independents and other parties.

Senior Fianna Fáil sources believe that Fine Gael is waiting until after Easter to make any approach. It is ready and willing to engage if and when this happens, as Willie O’Dea told Newstalk earlier.

If Fine Gael want to come and talk to us, then obviously we’ll talk to them.

But right now, as talks on this ‘Endapendant’ government progress, this particular ‘elephant in the room’ – the need for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to talk – is being ignored.

Read: As the wait goes on, Enda is told to pick up the phone to Fianna Fáil

Watch: This outgoing minister gave us a brutal assessment of where it all went wrong for Labour 

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