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If government deal falls, FF would look to Independents and smaller parties, as the Sinn Féin question is asked again

Postal votes on the programme for government will be counted on Friday.

Image: Leah Farrell

JUST OVER FOUR months ago, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald tore chunks off each other during a heated debate on the first day of the new Dáil.

“I see we still live rent-free in Micheal Martin’s narrow and bitter mind.

“‘Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have run the show for almost a century and by Christ, they’re not minded to let go,” said McDonald.

Martin said he could not go into government with Sinn Féin stating that the party’s efforts to “legitimise a murderous sectarian campaign keeps alive a narrative which is used by dissidents to legitimise their campaigns today”.

The exchange between the two leaders made it pretty clear that they had no intention of doing business with each other.

However, when those words were said in February, no one could have predicted that the country would still be without a government and in the midst of a global pandemic. 

The Green Party, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have sat around a table for weeks discussing what they would like to deliver if they all go into government together.

A programme for government has been published, and now it is down to the members of each party as to whether they want to give it the green light. 

While some had concerns last week, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil now seem confident that their party members will sign off on it, but all eyes are on the Greens who have a high bar to reach – a 66% approval rate – if they are to enter into government. 

Green Party members have said the vote is on a knife-edge. 

Depending who (or what party) you ask, some want a government formed, others want this trio deal rejected.

However, as we edge towards Friday’s results – the day in which all the postal votes are counted and the results revealed – the question being asked is: what happens if the deal fails?

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin are already on the same page, it would seem, both stating that it would be a “political crisis”.

However, speaking yesterday, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said it would just mean that all parties would have to talk to one another. 

With such utterances, the question that was asked at the beginning of this political journey is being asked again of the Fianna Fáil leader: Can he envisage any circumstances in which his party would sit down and talk to Sinn Féin?

The answer was not forthcoming on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland yesterday. 

Martin said, “it is very uncertain what will happen if it is not passed”.

He also said such as phrases as “uncharted territory” and “no magic Plan B”. 

A glass half full man, he said he was “very positive that the programme will be accepted”. 

When pushed on the issue of whether Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin-Green Party government could be a possibility, Martin said a clear policy platform is now on the table. 

He said Sinn Féin had produced no framework document for a Left government, but no categorical ruling out of Sinn Féin.

When asked on Newstalk yesterday about the same issue, Martin said he didn’t have the mandate to speak to Sinn Féin.

“Our parliamentary party gave me a clear mandate to engage with Fine Gael and other like-minded parties in terms of policies.

“The detail that we’ve engaged in with the Green Party and Fine Gael has been quite exhaustive – it’s not as simple as just turning a switch and saying we’ll go somewhere else.

“We’re focused on this – it’s not up to Fianna Fáil alone in the aftermath of this if it doesn’t work out, [but] I’m hopeful it will.”

Later that day, around teatime, Martin appeared to rule out Sinn Féin as a potential coalition partner if the Green Party don’t back the programme for government deal.

“The Social Democrats and the Labour Party wrote back to us so I wouldn’t rule them out as a possibility.”

“Secondly, we have had good discussions with Independent TDs and we have had good discussions with them.

“There are 18 or 19 centre-ground independents out there,” he said during an interview on Today FM.

He said it would be fair to say there is also a possibility of another general election. 

The mood of uncertainty is also being felt among some Fianna Fáil TDs.

Uncertainty over whether the programme can get over the line, and also uncertainty about where it leaves them if it doesn’t. 

While TDs such as John McGuinness and Éamon Ó Cuív have said their party should have spoken to everyone from the beginning, including Sinn Féin, others are staunchly against the idea.

One Fianna Fáil TD said there are no easy answers if the deal does fall, stating there hasn’t been any real discussion among party members about where they turn next.

There are multiple issues with Sinn Féin, they said, stating that their policies are not in any way aligned to Fianna Fáil’s. 

They cited the Special Criminal Court, as one example, stating that it is just one issue the two parties would disagree on. Sinn Féin had been calling for the court to be abolished as far back as 2002 (at the latest) and in the 2016 race the party pledged to “repeal the Offences Against the State Acts”. However, in the election this year, McDonald’s language around the court had softened, saying she did not want the court abolished.

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It would be the first of many issues the two parties would have to contend with if they ever went into government together, they said.

Incompatible is how another TD described the two parties when asked about the prospect of them doing business together. They were hopeful the deal will get across the line and didn’t want to give thought to any other possibilities.

Sinn Féin and the Greens are also incompatible, they pointed out, stating that the carbon tax is a core issue for the Green Party, but something Sinn Féin opposes. 

“I really don’t know how it will go,” said another, who said it is difficult to read the mood of the Green Party this week.

Another Fianna Fáil TD said they didn’t envisage the party going back in to renegotiate the deal or going back into talks with other parties. They said the programme for government agreement was reached between the Green Party, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and if the deal is defeated the document falls with it.

They said they couldn’t see how talks with Independents could begin next week, stating that a large chunk of the deal was down to the Green Party, so it would not be a working document to resume talks with.

One person who is not giving up hope is Barry Cowen, one of the Fianna Fáil teams’ negotiators in the programme for government talks.

“I’m not contemplating it falling asunder at all,” he said when asked about what might come next if the deal fails to get approved.

He said a lot of work went into delivering a programme for government that will provide a stable government for the country.

Cowen said he wouldn’t speculate on any other outcomes.

While Fianna Fáilers don’t seem to know what the future might hold, a Fine Gael TD said Sinn Féin in government with Fianna Fáil might be a possibility.

They said Leo Varadkar would probably meet with Mary Lou McDonald if the deal fell through, but ultimately Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are “too far apart”. 

“There is no chance of that,” said the TD when asked about the possibility of Fine Gael and Sinn Féin doing business. 

They said it would be a very hard sell for Micheál Martin, though the Covid-19 pandemic might give the Fianna Fáil leader “cover” to do a deal with McDonald.

The government might get off the ground only to stumble and fall during Budget negotiations in Autumn, it was pointed out.

Votes will be counted on Friday, with all three parties aiming to co-ordinate the announcement of the results. Whether we will have a government next week or whether parites such as Fianna Fáil will have to be more open to those they have ruled out will all become clear then.

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