Micheál Martin’s dilemma.
The Fianna Fáil leader is likely Ireland’s premier-in-waiting, but the job will come at a cost.
Ireland’s lower house (Dáil Éireann) is soon to meet for the first time since a historic election took place just a week ago. In the lead up to it, the new-look parties are meeting in Dublin to try and figure out where the country goes next.
Leo Varadkar remains in charge of Ireland a week after voters relegated his party to third place.
The country’s two major parties suffered nation-wide swings against them. In the 160 seat Dáil, Varadkar’s Fine Gael are left with just 35 seats, Micheál Martin’s Fianna Fáil with 38.
It was Sinn Féin and their leader Mary Lou McDonald who came away the big winners. The left wing party, dedicated to the unification of Ireland had its best result since they ceased abstaining from the Dáil in 1986.
Facing average polls at the outset of the election, Sinn Féin decided to run just 42 candidates. The unprecedented level of support the party gained during the campaign swept 37 of those candidates into the Dáil, one seat less than Fianna Fáil despite winning the most votes.
And so now the tricky business of coalition building begins. No natural partnerships are possible: the Greens, the Social Democrats, and Labour have just 24 seats between them. Ireland’s major parties have long promised to never bring Sinn Féin into government, that promise is looking harder to keep.
Leo Varadkar and his ministers will keep their jobs until a new government can be formed. If that can’t happen a fresh election will have to be called.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were both adamant before the election that forming a government with Sinn Féin would not be in the national interest, although individual Fianna Fáil backbenchers are now openly discussing it. If either party did it, there would have to be an uncomfortable discussion about which portfolios Sinn Féin ministers would be entitled to, with Defence, Finance, and Justice all considered a bridge too far by Ireland’s conservative establishment.
Then there is the age old suggestion that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael should form a grand coalition, though for a majority they would still need an additional eight votes. Varadkar has made it clear he is open to the idea, Martin has previously indicated that he is not. Ireland’s two major parties are both centre-right wing, with little policy difference of any substance. From an outsider’s perspective such a ‘Coke-Pepsi’ government would be easy, but the divisions between the two are old and Martin has the long-term fortunes of his party to consider.
If another election is called, McDonald will nominate two or three Sinn Féin candidates in every constituency across the country. If their new popularity holds up, Sinn Féin may then only have to negotiate with the left wing bloc for power.
The new Fianna Fáil party room met yesterday for a marathon four hours. Its members made it clear that there was no substantial support for a deal with Sinn Féin, that they wanted Micheál Martin to remain as leader, and that talks with Fine Gael and the Greens should begin immediately.
Until any deal is done, Leo Varadkar remains the Taoiseach. Post-Brexit negotiations between the EU and the UK will provide him with an opportunity to look like a leader on the world stage.
Micheál Martin has been a TD (the Irish equivalent of MP) since 1989, he’s been leader of Fianna Fáil since 2011. The man’s lifelong ambition is to be Taoiseach.
And now that ambition is within his reach and he has two options that could take him there. The dangers of the ‘Coke-Pepsi’ grand coalition with Fine Gael involve highlighting to the public just how similar they are and eroding base electoral support, but it would also make Sinn Féin the largest party not in government, Mary Lou McDonald would become Opposition Leader. That would give Sinn Féin a bigger platform to grow their support from. Martin and Vardkar would also have to govern with the Greens, who would want to introduce measures like a carbon tax that are considered toxic in regional Ireland.
With one more seat than McDonald, a coalition with Sinn Féin could also make Martin ‘an Taoiseach’. The Shinners would demand immediate action on Irish unification, McDonald has said that means a referendum within five years. Any discussion on Northern Ireland leaving the UK has the potential to turn violent. Varadkar would be Opposition Leader and Fine Gael could snipe from the side-lines, ready to benefit from any controversy. A government with Sinn Féin also brings with it the risk of a backlash from Fianna Fáil’s electoral base. Supporters of the Liberal Democrats Party in the UK made leader Nick Clegg pay the price for forming a government with an unlikely partner when they abandoned the party during the 2015 elections. The Lib Dems have never recovered and Clegg lost his seat two years later.
Micheál Martin has a dilemma, his decision will either make or break him.