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'A new version of red lines': The Covid-19 crisis accelerates Government formation talks

TDs from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil met yesterday to discuss a new government.

Image: Leah Farrell

GOVERNMENT FORMATION TALKS have been accelerated by the Covid-19 outbreak as emergency legislation set to be passed by the Dáil today and the Seanad tomorrow could be the last supports introduced if a new government is not formed. 

Yesterday, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael met for talks and said afterwards that they both “agree the need to form a strong stable government that will help Ireland recover post Covid 19″.

Both parties met yesterday afternoon in what has been described as a “productive meeting”.

Legislation

Meanwhile, the Dáil will sit from 10am this morning until late this evening to allow a debate take place on the additional measures announced by the Government on Tuesday.

If passed, the legislation will go to the Seanad tomorrow to be signed off before going to President Michael D Higgins to be signed into law. 

However, when the Seanad elections close on Monday, the current Seanad term will end and some 49 of the 60 Seanad seats will be filled.

The remaining 11 seats will be appointed by the taoiseach but as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is leading in a caretaker capacity, those seats will not be filled until the next Taoiseach is chosen, and therefore no new legislation can pass through the Seanad until that happens. 

Yesterday, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael met for over two hours in talks that were described as “productive”.

The delegations met in Ag House on Kildare Street, where social-distancing was observed. The discussions largely focused on dealing with the public health emergency and a recovery plan when the crisis is over.

It is understood that Fine Gael is now in a position to discuss a programme for government. One source said with the coronavirus and the Seanad quandary, the pressure is on to get a government off the ground.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin admitted this week the prospect of a new Seanad being unable to meet and therefore cutting off any prospect of emergency legislation being passed after this week, might “concentrate the minds” and hasten the formation of a new government.

Meanwhile, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government’s focus is very much on the Covid-19 emergency, but where time can be found then further negotiations can happen. 

Sinn Féin tried to form a left-leaning government following February’s election, and so some expected it would be several months before a new Government took over – longer than the 70 days it took in the 2016 election. 

But the coronavirus crisis has thrown a spanner in the works, as Sinn Féin reined in its efforts, leaving Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to seize the opportunity. It now looks like a Government could be formed sooner than anticipated. 

“It sort of seemed to speed up and then slow it down, and now its speeding it up again,” UCD Professor of Politics David Farrell said of government talks. 

And now we’re reaching a point that we might lose the ability to pass legislation, and that has concentrated it in a way that we didn’t have in 2016.

Red lines

Farrell suggested that the red lines, which would have normally prolonged negotiations as parties bicker back and forth over policy issues, will have softened in a move to get a new administration up and running. 

“It is extraordinary that the coronavirus crisis has thrown so much into turmoil, and that the manifesto promises of any of the parties now are long forgotten in terms of economics, and social and health issues because who knows what kind of budgetary mess we have to contend with.

“Because of the huge budgetary uncertainty, that government will have to be secure as possible to ride that storm that is going to come after the crisis and that might bring in a new version of red lines that we can’t anticipate at this stage.

There isn’t a need for the parties to hang tough on their manifesto promises that they might have had to in the past.

Yesterday, Varadkar said he believes it is possible to form a government “in the next couple of weeks”. However, unlike calls for a national temporary government – which the Green Party and Sinn Fein supports – to see us through the Covid-19 crisis, Varadkar said there is a need for a “government that’s gonna last”.

He wants the newly-formed government to last until 2025 and for that to work, a majority will be needed. 

Varadkar said others will be required to fill the gap in numbers between the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties, which together only account for 72 of the 80 seats required to form a government.

Ten more TDs who are willing to come “on board”, he said, stating that those that step up will have to “stay the course” and “be willing to make the tough decisions, as well as the popular ones, for the next four years”.

Who could fill the gap? There have been mixed reports about whether the Green Party were still toying with the idea of going in with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, however, Green TD Patrick Costello said yesterday: “Our stance is very clear – national unity Government to put politics aside and people first.”

With the Greens apparently ruling out government, the focus will not turn to the Independent TDs.

Sinn Féin surge

Martin and Varadkar have taken the lead in formation talks despite the Sinn Féin surge in the election. This led Sinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald to be first out of the traps to meet with other party leaders with a view to leading a new government.

In spite of this, the party has also reined in its efforts in recent weeks as the country comes to terms with the new measures to reduce the spread of the virus. 

Farrell suggested that McDonald was “playing the long game”, conscious that Fine Gael’s caretaker government is leading the way in the rollout of emergency measures and of her role in supporting those measures for the public good. 

“I think Sinn Féin has been playing this very well and providing a service in so doing that,” he said. “They’re being patient, which Sinn Féin is good at, and they’re good at playing the long game.”

He also suggested a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition will deliver a rotating Taoiseach, with the likelihood of Leo Varadkar being the first leader of the coalition as a result of his handling of the Covid-19 crisis. 

“I think there is no doubt that the key Government ministers have done an incredible job in the most difficult of circumstances, including Leo Varadkar, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that.

“I think there is no doubt Leo’s handling of things has strengthened his position at least in the short term, and if we are going ahead with a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael government, [along] with others, I would have thought rotating Taoiseach is definitely in play. 

“I think it would have been in play anyway; but perhaps in light of what happened it’s a greater chance that Leo would be the first Taoiseach.”

Discussions between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are to continue, with another formal meeting scheduled for next week.

 

About the author:

Conor McCrave and Christina Finn

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