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Is the 'grand coalition' the only show in town - and how likely is it to happen?

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil haven’t talked about government yet – but it’s only a matter of time.

23/2/2016 General Election Campaigns Starts Source: RollingNews.ie

THE FIRST SITTING of the 32nd Dáil will be a formality, with TDs going through the motions before the real business of trying to form a government begins.

The election of a Ceann Comhairle and Taoiseach will both take place tomorrow. The outcome of the first vote is uncertain with a number of candidates in the mix. The outcome of the latter is predictable: There will be no Taoiseach elected and the Dáil will more than likely adjourn until after Easter.

Over the past 10 days, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaderships have been meeting with independents and small parties in a bid to seek support for the election of their respective candidates tomorrow.

Many in political circles view these discussions as largely just political posturing, something to fill the gap between last month’s election and the first Dáil sitting. The real story is Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and whether they can do a deal.

Where does Fine Gael stand? 

There is a growing belief within Fine Gael that the only show in town will be one with Fianna Fáil on the stage as well. The party will begin reaching out to the old enemy once tomorrow’s formalities are out of the way.

Today’s Irish Times front page story – ‘Fine Gael Ministers want coalition deal with Fianna Fáil’ – follows on from yesterday’s in the Irish Examiner – ‘Kenny to make an offer of talks with FF’.

Both stories lay the groundwork for the approach. Michael Noonan did likewise in Brussels yesterday. He told reporters: “The Taoiseach has got involved in a series of discussions, starting with individual independents and smaller parties.

But of course that will evolve, I presume after Thursday, into discussions with Fianna Fáil and then we’ll see where that goes.

screenshot.1457538365.9833 Source: www.thejournal.ie

One minister told us on Monday that the “only option” after tomorrow will be for Kenny and Martin to talk. Within Fine Gael there is an acknowledgement that a grand coalition is the only way to provide a stable government for the next few years and there is little appetite for a minority government.

The thinking? It would not provide the stability the party has preached for five years, nor would it be of electoral benefit. Fine Gael would take all the blame that governments usually take and Fianna Fáil could essentially dictate the date of the next election. If last month’s seat losses were bad, another election after a minority government could be even worse.

Some in Fine Gael think going into opposition wouldn’t be all that bad. Leo Varadkar has been the most vocal on this, saying immediately after the election:

It’s up to the opposition to see if they can form a government. We’ve been rebuffed.

27/2/2016. General Election 2016 - Counting of Vot Leo Varadkar Source: RollingNews.ie

This has more to do with Varadkar positioning himself to potentially succeed Kenny as leader. This becomes easier if Fine Gael does go into opposition as it would automatically trigger a confidence motion in Kenny.

In that same vein, another leadership contender, Simon Coveney, said this afternoon that “Fine Gael aren’t going to be bounced into something” and expressed reservations about coalition with Fianna Fáil, including the idea of a rotating Taoiseach. This is where Fianna Fáil’s and Fine Gael’s leaders would each serve in the post for a period of time.

But as the largest party in the Dáil, there is widespread acknowledgement – in political circles and among the public – that the onus is on Fine Gael to try and form a government. Such expectation will force them into reaching out to the old rival.

Where does Fianna Fáil stand? 

There is considerable resistance within Fianna Fáil to going into government with Fine Gael. The party’s candidates knocked on doors last month and told voters they wanted to get the government – and Enda Kenny – out.

“I don’t think people voted for Fianna Fáil to go into a coalition with Fine Gael, that’s the feedback I’m getting,” newly-elected Mayo TD Lisa Chambers told us yesterday.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 20.19.17 Lisa Chambers

Micheál Martin fired the opening salvo on the Monday following the election when he called for discussions on widespread and fundamental parliamentary reform before any talks on government. But since then he has remained noticeably silent as he has met with independents and smaller parties.

Fianna Fáil has held two parliamentary party meetings in that period. The first was largely celebratory as the party welcomed its new TDs to the fold and basked in the glory of being “very much back in business”, as one deputy put it.

The second was largely perfunctory and amounted to a discussion and vote on who to nominate for Ceann Comhairle. As one senior Fianna Fáil TD put it, Martin has been given a mandate by his colleagues to bring together as many independents and small parties as he can to see what’s doable.

“The parliamentary party has given him a full hand as to how he manages this couple of days,” the TD said after Monday’s meeting in Leinster House. That, they said, will not change until after Thursday.

Some within the ranks think Fianna Fáil should do a deal with Fine Gael. Sligo-Leitrim TD Marc MacSharry released a statement over the weekend in which he said the two parties should enter government on an equal footing, with a rotating Taoiseach.

25/5/2011. First sitting of the 24th Seanad Marc MacSharry Source: RollingNews.ie

But others take the completely opposite view with another senior Fianna Fáil TD saying the party will simply not go into government. Instead it will watch in opposition as a Fine Gael minority is formed and then collapses within 18 months, leading to another election. This, the TD thinks, stands to benefit Fianna Fáil and could lead to it overtaking Fine Gael as the largest party.

But the biggest barrier of all to the grand coalition is the membership of Fianna Fáil. Under a change in the party’s rules introduced three years ago, a special ard fhéis must take place and members must vote on any government deal.

Many TDs report that the Fianna Fáil members in their constituency are dead set against any arrangement with Fine Gael. That much was clear from Dublin members in the RDS on count weekend who said it just would not fly. This will be the biggest barrier to a coalition deal and is why there’s considerable resistance from Fianna Fáil TDs right now.

So what’s going to happen? 

Right now, we’re in shadowboxing phase. After tomorrow, Fine Gael will likely make the approach. After that, it’s all about how Fianna Fáil responds. Talks will happen, but the outcome of those talks is far from clear.

One thing we can say for certain is that this will take many, many weeks as the St Patrick’s Day events and the Easter break mean that negotiations will be staggered somewhat. The Dáil is not likely to sit again until April and even then there is no guarantee of an outcome.

But the longer it goes on the more of an imperative it will become to form a government. Markets may become spooked and international investors’ concerns about Ireland will become more prominent. A government ‘in the national interest’ will take centre stage in the discussions in the backrooms and on the airwaves.

But that still doesn’t mean a deal between the big two will be done. Whatever happens, a period of uncertainty lies ahead and a second election cannot be ruled out.

Read: What exactly happens when the new Dáil sits on Thursday?

Read: Gerry wants to be Taoiseach, but Enda is meeting everybody so that he gets to rule the roost

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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