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FF finds itself between a rock and a hard place as all eyes turn to coalition talks

Martin does not have to consult the membership to enter talks with Sinn Féin.

Image: PA

FIANNA FÁIL is between a rock and a hard place. 

While counts were coming in fast at the RDS yesterday, the real talking point was on government formation. Will they, won’t they?

Will it be Sinn Féin? Or could it possibly be Fine Gael?

That was the big question on everyone’s lips at the Dublin RDS count centre yesterday as results rolled in. Journalists and politicians were doing the maths, and looking at all the options (outside of Fianna Fáil clamouring to the true Opposition benches).

Three theories of what Fianna Fail could do emerged – go into government with Fine Gael; form a coalition with Sinn Fein; or support a left-wing minority government through another round of confidence and supply. 

Options

The first option, going in with Fine Gael, runs the risk of seriously alienating the electorate (as well as some in their own party). Those elected in both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have all stated through gritted teeth that the country voted for change. Does that mean the same old faces of the confidence and supply? No.

In forming a grand coalition, the two parties would effectively hand Sinn Féin a majority government in the next election by allowing them to build their strength in opposition. What behemoth could await them both come the next general election?

The second option for Fianna Fáil is doing the unthinkable for the party leader: joining forces with Mary Lou and leading a government, perhaps with a rotating Taoiseach every couple of years. Micheál, then Mary Lou. 

The third, and least likely, is for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to abstain and allow McDonald to become Taoiseach of a left-leaning government. The thought process for some in Fianna Fáil regarding this is that such a cobbled together government would fall apart within a year to 18 months. 

If all options fail, we are heading for another election not too long away.

“That is the last thing that Fianna Fáil wants,” said one Fine Gael source.

“Sinn Féin would double the seats they put forward and it would run the risk of Sinn Féin forming a majority government. No way.”

Discussions

While some TDs like Cavan-Monaghan’s Brendan Smith have emphatically rejected the idea of going into coalition with Sinn Féin, others like Dublin Bay North’s Sean Haughey have said everybody must talk to everybody, and that discussions with Mary Lou McDonald must now happen. 

Despite stating over and over again before the election that he would not do business with the party, in the last few days Micheál Martin’s position on talks between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin has softened slightly.

However, all day yesterday, TDs – as they were returned in count centres – repeated the same message: the onus is on McDonald to talk to smaller parties who received the ‘change mandate’ to see if they could form a government. 

A senior party source told TheJournal.ie that more such shapes will be thrown in the next few days, but ultimately, talks will take place between the two parties.

“We are at the start of a process here,” they said, adding that there will be a “period of reflection”, before the wheels turn. 

“The electorate will expect that,” they said, adding that politicians are “professionals” and “are not going to ignore what happened in the last 24 hours”. 

The 2016 government formation was finalised 70 days after polling day, but the senior Fianna Fáil source said the party does not expect it to take that long this time around, saying that four years ago, there were a lot of independents in the mix. 

(Although the way the numbers have fallen, there will likely still be independents in the mix for a SF/FF coalition to reach the magic number.)

Fianna Fáil expects McDonald to first talk to the smaller parties, but once it becomes apparent that the numbers aren’t there, the more realistic negotiations will begin.

While a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin government seems likely, the Green Party joining their side of the Dáil will make any deal more palatable, said the Fianna Fáil source. Criticisms have been levelled at Sinn Féin that it is not the top of their list but using the Greens as a mudguard for this government will ensure that the climate change issue is on the priority list. 

Ard fheis?

Does Martin have to call an Ard Fheis to ask the membership if talks can begin with Sinn Féin? 

In short: No. That is something that is up to the leader and the parliamentary party to decide. 

However, the Ard Fheis will have to approve a programme for government that might emerge from the talks with Sinn Féin.

“One thing about Micheál Martin, he knows how to read the party. If we were to get into that space with a programme for government with Sinn Féin, he would not put a programme for government to the membership if he wasn’t certain that it would get through,” they said. 

They acknowledged that the issues are “challenging” but “he knows where the Fianna Fáil party is and to be fair, they trust him”.

In the meantime, while all parties decide who they are going to talk to, Leo Varadkar continues in his duties as sitting Taoiseach. But for how long? That’s the question.

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