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It took absolutely ages to form a government in 2016. Here's what happened

It took 70 days last time out. Could it take as long this time?
Feb 19th 2020, 8:00 PM 16,374 30

90410469 Scenes when Paschal Donohoe won a seat in Dublin Central in 2016. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

THE NUMBERS WEREN’T as tight as they are now, but it still wasn’t immediately clear how a government would be formed following the 2016 general election.

However, just like now, there was a consensus that the February election had gone very badly for the government. 

Fine Gael had lost 16 seats but was still the largest party.

Labour went from the second biggest party to the fourth, losing a whopping 26 seats.

Fianna Fáil, on 44 seats, trailed Fine Gael by six while Sinn Féin had 23 seats.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny admitted that the FG-Labour government wouldn’t be returning fairly early on count day following the 26 February election.

When the dust settled in the following days, it was clear that putting a government together would require some heavy compromise from the two traditionally largest parties in the Dáil – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. 

But, as is happening this time round, there was plenty of “shadow boxing” and “doing the dance” for weeks (and weeks) on end before they actually sat down and got into the real business of beginning talks to form a new government. 

Up against it

Just as is happening now, it looked like both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would have to do the unthinkable and find some way of working together. 

But the situation was slightly different in 2016.

Fine Gael had 50 seats but were well short of the numbers needed to form a government.

On the Monday after the election, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told Today with Sean O’Rourke there was “not a chance in hell” of a government being formed by Easter. 

He turned out to be correct.

download - 2020-02-19T091418.733 Enda Kenny had a long road to becoming Taoiseach again. Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

After repeatedly ruling it out prior to the general election, Enda Kenny came out less than a week after the election on 2 March and admitted his party would talk to Fianna Fáil.

“The numbers in the Dáil, and the way that they are now falling through, make it difficult to put forward a proposition for government. But that’s what the people expect us to do now.

And as the leader of the largest party, and as Taoiseach, it’s my responsibility to work to see that that process is put in place and that includes talking to the Fianna Fáil party.

The next day on Thursday 3 March he said that he wouldn’t form a government “at any cost”.

RTÉ reported that Fine Gael didn’t want to be in a “hostage situation” where they had to accede to anything Fianna Fáil asked for.

Prior to the talks getting under way with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael began talking with the newly-formed Independent Alliance - which featured Shane Ross, Finian McGrath and John Halligan, amongst others – on 4 March.

At this early stage, McGrath said the discussions were “constructive” but the grouping was also speaking to Fianna Fáil about the possibility of supporting a government.

Ross put his foot in it rather early on in the talks, drawing the ire of Fine Gaelers by referring to Enda Kenny as a “political corpse”. 

Impasse

Formal talks between the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil didn’t get under way for some time however, and not until way after the Dáil sat again for the first time on 10 March.

As convention dictates, a vote for Taoiseach must be held when the Dáil sits for the first time after a general election.

After a lengthy Dáil debate, no one had a majority so Kenny was forced to resign as Taoiseach. However, he stepped into the role of an acting Taoiseach until a successor could be found.

The process of putting a government into place became a bit disrupted with the traditional exodus of senior ministers to different parts of the world for St Patrick’s Day. 

While Kenny was in Washington, the likes of Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Frances Fitzgerald were courting smaller parties and independents aiming to secure their support. 

90417126 It was a long few months for senior FG figures such as Paschal Donohoe and Richard Bruton Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Subtle overtures were made by Fine Gaelers, via the media, to Fianna Fáil, with the possibility of an equal split of Cabinet posts and a “rotating” Taoiseach role mooted. 

On 15 March, TheJournal.ie reported the current state of play. At this stage, one Fine Gael figure characterised Fianna Fáil’s position on the grand coalition as “a vitriolic no, nay, never”.

Both main parties were talking to the smaller parties and independents at this stage, but no definitive breakthrough had yet been made.

There were two things that everyone agreed on: This couldn’t go on forever and no TD wanted a second election.

Flirtation

Three weeks after the election, and the two main parties still hadn’t formally spoken. 

The mood was summed up by Michael Healy-Rae, who Fine Gael was still courting to back a Kenny-led government on 20 March

Speaking on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics, the independent Kerry TD said:

“It’s ridiculous to think that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have not got their heads together, even if it was only to say ‘We can’t come out and find common ground’. That would in and of itself be helpful.

But the fact that they are standing back from each other, it reminds me of a boy and and a girl at a dance wanting to go with each other, thinking it’s the right thing to do but not having the guts to cross the dancehall and catch hands and go away into a corner together.

But on it went. 

And all this time, the Dáil wasn’t sitting and it was starting to really grate on other TDs. 

Speaking after a meeting with Fine Gael negotiators on 23 March, independent Denis Naughten – who would go on to serve in government – said that negotiations were intensifying but it was clear that FG + independents was doomed without the support of Fianna Fáil.

download - 2020-02-19T091257.618 It was a long few months for the Fianna Fáil negotiating team. Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Labelling it the “elephant in the room”, Naughten said: “The two big parties need to come together, they need to engage and we reiterated that again today, but there needed to be some new impetus to move this along.”

After the Easter weekend, there was finally some real progress.

On 31 March, 34 days after the election, Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin finally had a substantial chat.

With the Dáil due to (fail to) elect a Taoiseach on 6 April, the pair agreed they would meet after that vote. As expected, they both lost the vote to be elected Taoiseach on that date

During the course of what was said to be a “positive and constructive” hour-long meeting, Fine Gael sources said that Kenny offered a full partnership government involving Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and independent TDs.

This offer was firmly rebuffed by Fianna Fáil, who said the country would not be best served by a coalition of the two parties.

Nevertheless, this was the starting gun to the two parties talking. The main sticking point over the following few weeks turned out to be Irish Water. 

The Independent Alliance, meanwhile, finally appeared  to be ready to come on board on 15 April, when it outlined the demands it had to enter government. One of these was a guarantee of three Budgets getting over over the line. Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen said his party would also examine the three-Budget proposal.

Finishing line

At this stage, the electorate and the media were fed up with the lack of action as after 50 days since the election there still wasn’t a government. 

All the while, talks were really starting to intensify between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

With Fianna Fáil ruling out formally going into government, a minority FG + independents government along with Fianna Fáil’s support had become “the only show in town”. 

On 21 April, one TD said that “water remains the central issue – both the charges and the structure of the utility”.

That same day Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael held talks again. Cowen said:

There are still several items outstanding – issues surrounding childcare, education, housing, health.

The next day – 22 April – Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny spoke on the phone, and agreed to talk again the next day as both sides stayed firm on Irish Water. Fine Gael wanted to retain the charges, while Fianna Fáil wanted Irish Water broken up and water charges abolished. 

Fine Gael finally began to give in on water and, by 26 April, Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath said the talks were “in the end game at this stage”. 

Then there was a hiccup in the talks.

Leo Varadkar, who was just a TD at the time, took to the airwaves to state that scrapping charges was the wrong decision and not in the national interest.

He said it would have been “insane” to go back to the people and fight an election on water charges. His comments resulted in a row breaking out between the two parties. 

Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath said Varadkar’s comments were “deeply unhelpful, unnecessary and self-serving”.

He told the media at Leinster House that he could not understand Varadkar’s timing, and observed that the minister appeared to be positioning himself for a leadership battle within Fine Gael.

The timing beggars belief… those claims can only inflame the situation, I simply can’t understand it.

By the next day, 29 April, all seemed to be sorted, with negotiators from both parties finally reaching a deal after “tortuous” talks.

The agreement provided for a minority government led by Fine Gael, with support from Fianna Fáil in opposition for three Budgets. With Fianna Fáil abstaining, the numbers narrowed and it was no longer needed to have 79 seats to be elected Taoiseach.

Enda Kenny also needed support from at least six more independents to reach the magic number of 58 seats, allowing a minority government to be formed.

This need for independents brought the Independent Alliance back into play at a very late stage. 

However, winning their support was far from secure. On 2 May, Independent Alliance TD for Roscommon-Galway Michael Fitzmaurice said that the prospect of reaching a deal that week “would be pushing it”.

90417162 Michael Fitzmaurice, Finian McGrath and Shane Ross on 2 May 2016. Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Talks went on and on ahead of the all-important day when Kenny would try at last to form a government.

D-Day

Even on the day Enda Kenny was elected Taoiseach on 6 May, there was high drama in the Dáil.

It wasn’t apparent up until the final moments whether or not he’d have enough votes to be elected Taoiseach. 

With Fianna Fáil abstaining, Fine Gael needed the support of the Independent Alliance to get over the line. 

That group were holding a meeting deciding how they’d vote even as the debate in the Dáil was under way and debating who’d be voted the next Taoiseach. 

After frantic last minute discussions, the Independent Alliance – with the exception of Michael Fitzmaurice – was swayed and a new government was formed.

Nine independents, including the IA, ended up supporting Enda Kenny, and many of them – such as Shane Ross, Katherine Zappone and Denis Naughten – won a seat at Cabinet as a result. 

It was a full 70 days after the general election.

70 days after the election this time around would bring us to Saturday 18 April 2020.

The first attempt to elect a Taoiseach – perhaps of many - will take place tomorrow. 

With additional reporting by Christina Finn

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Sean Murray

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