Last week as we passed the 40th day since the general election and still a government had not been formed, one of the left wing deputies in the Dail pointed out in a speech that Jesus only had to wander in the desert for 40 days and nights before something happened.
Here in Ireland last week, 40 days after the general election, we were still wandering in the political darkness with not an angel in sight.
On Wednesday of last week, for the second time since the election, the Dail voted and failed to elect a new taoiseach. Thanks to the general election result which produced a near stalemate between the two main parties as well as a large number of clueless independents, neither of the main party leaders could get a majority in the Dail to be the next taoiseach.
The obvious solution was some kind of super coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, but Fianna Fail refused to even consider the possibility. To the general disgust of the public, the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail at that stage last week had not even met to try to work out a solution.
That has now changed, and serious negotiations are underway between the two sides aimed at forming a minority government. Whether this will be led by Fine Gael or Fianna Fail is unclear at the time of writing, although Enda Kenny still has his nose in front. The crucial requirement to make this work is that the main party not in power will give an undertaking to support the minority government on a range of basic issues.
Before the independents will vote to back a minority government they want an assurance that, whoever is in the driving seat, the new administration will last for two to three years. The Dail meets again on Thursday of this week when another vote for taoiseach is due, but it is still unclear whether a deal can be hammered out in time.
The only game in town now is the formation of a minority government, and any possibility of a super coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail has been abandoned. We will come to the reasons for that in a moment, but the first thing to be said is that this is a lost opportunity of great significance because to describe such a development as historic is not an exaggeration.
Bringing Fine Gael and Fianna Fail together in a government would clearly mark the beginning of the end of the Civil War divide in Irish politics. In the year of the centenary of the 1916 Rising it would be especially appropriate, marking the beginning of a new modern era and the end of the politics of the past.
It would, of course, be an enormous step for either of the two main parties to take, even though at this stage there is a very little difference between them in ideology or policy. Both are centrist, free market parties, and the historic divide between them on the North has not been relevant for decades. Even so, the idea of them catching up with history and coming together still seems far-fetched to some people.
That is why, when Fine Gael leader Kenny and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin did finally have a meeting last week after the failed vote in the Dail, what Kenny came up with was something of a shock. What caught everyone by surprise was the extent of the offer which he was willing to make.
The offer to Fianna Fail was an invitation to join in “a full partnership government” with an equal sharing of ministers and even the possibility of giving Martin equal time as taoiseach. Clearly this “partnership government” went far beyond the usual coalition model.
No one expected that Kenny would go that far, since he still leads the largest party in the Dail. Fianna Fail accused him of playing political games.
But the fact is the offer was made. Kenny is a man with an eye on his legacy and his place in history.
Martin, you would think, would have been delighted with the offer and would have grabbed it with both hands. But Fianna Fail, in spite of all the guff they spout about being the party that truly represents the interests of the Irish people, is more focused on what is good for the party than what is good for the country.
Their main problem is that if they joined with Fine Gael in a super-coalition government it would leave Sinn Fein as the main opposition party in the Dail. In that situation, with dif cult decisions ahead, Sinn Fein would be able to play the populist game and eat away at Fianna Fail’s traditional support. Although the situation is different here, what the Shinners did to the SDLP in the North sends shivers down Fianna Fail spines.
The second reason for the Fianna Fail refusal is naked opportunism. They are playing a slightly longer game, believing that if they stay in opposition and support a minority Fine Gael-led government, they can pull the plug on it in a couple of years on a populist issue and then become the largest party after the next election. It’s all about power, you see, not about what’s best for the country.
Given that Fianna Fail is the party that wrecked the country and has come back from the dead only because of national anger over the austerity program that was forced on the country, their behavior is nauseating. Listening to Martin talking about “a fairer way” of dealing with the economic crisis, you would never think he was a minister in the government that caused it.
Martin has been arguing this week that reducing the debate to one about “ending Civil War politics” is misleading because he says their differences with Fine Gael are substantial.
Few people agree with that, and most people regard what Fianna Fail are doing as cynical and opportunistic.
And nothing exemplifies that better than Fianna Fail’s shameless use of the water charges issue to curry favor with the voters.
Under pressure from the EU, it was the last Fianna Fail government which agreed that water had to be metered and charged for, like happens in all other European countries. But once they were in opposition they reversed their position so they could exploit the widespread resistance to the new charges.
They have been playing this game for years. It was to win an election in the 1970s that a Fianna Fail government abolished the rates (local taxes) that used to pay for water services.
And it was successive Fianna Fail governments that then starved local councils of the central funds they were supposed to get to maintain water services.
The decades of neglect and the fragmentation of services across the 32 local authorities left our water and sewage systems in a shameful state, with inadequate supply of fresh water and pollution in rivers and lakes. The only sensible solution was a national water utility and water charges to pay for urgently needed investment.
The fact that Kenny’s government made a mess of winning public acceptance for the Irish Water utility does not negate the fact that it is absolutely necessary for the future of the country. Fianna Fail knows this, but they exploited the situation in a deeply cynical manner and said the abolition of Irish Water was a red line issue for them, piling up votes as a result in the election.
Water is just one of a number of difficult problems that have to be dealt with by whoever forms the next government. How do we know Fianna Fail won’t exploit them as well to continue its populist vote building?
Given that they were almost wiped out in the 2011 election because of the crash they caused, there was some hope that maybe Fianna Fail had learned its lesson, that the party’s culture of political strokes and backhanders and irresponsible vote buying might have come to an end.
But the way they are behaving now shows this is not the case. In particular, the way that they have dismissed out of hand the idea of ending Civil War politics by joining Fine Gael in a government capable of making the hard decisions that will be needed in the years ahead shows that they are still the same old Fianna Fail.
De Valera, the original slippery merchant, would be proud of them.